Franco Corelli and - A Revolution in Singing
By Nino Pantano
This volume, Franco Corelli - A Revolution in Singing (Volume 2), by Stefan Zucker comes at
a time when many traditional opera customs are being looked upon with such inquisitional
curiosity by today's book burners. The directors' various brain and sexual disorders appear
to be silencing the singers and appealing to guilt laden complexes that seem to be working
on the side of the devils. Make-up gone, Canio castrated, Don Jose executed by Carmen and
Calaf beheaded by Turandot. How can a book, however scholarly on opera singers and
composers, have any relevance today? Well, this wonderfully entertaining and enlightening
book has been a source of unalloyed joy and pleasure to me and Stefan Zucker's (Bel Canto
Society) insatiable appetite for gossip, rivalry and jealousy among these artists speaks
I was blessed to have been an opera-file as a young man when Franco Corelli (1921-2003)
was having his triumphs. My love of the voice of the great tenor Enrico Caruso made me a
follower of the careers of so many legendary names. Since Franco Corelli began his rise in
the 1950's I can aptly say I saw and heard him with his brilliant powerful voice, film star
persona and the excitement of his physical presence that made him unique. No one today
can rival those exceptional qualities. He had sex appeal, power, pathos and could diminish a
tone until it became a whisper. His larynx lowering was part of his vocal magic. I believe
that Giacomo Lauri-Volpi was the tenor who influenced Corelli the most. Franco Corelli's
personal letters to Lauri-Volpi are very touching and show his great admiration for this
legendary tenor. Franco and Loretta were very devoted to Lauri-Volpi and his wife Maria and
Lauri-Volpi still sang in his eighties.
The author, Stephan Zucker, gave concerts with his mother, famed soprano Mme. Rosina
Wolf, embellishing the nine high C's in the La Fille du Regiment aria. Stefan's mother knew
Franco Corelli, who baby sat for her while she was performing in Italy in 1951, watching
young Stefan. Stefan became one of the great personalities in the opera world creating a
"buzz" and a "stir" with his comments and his "Opera Fanatic" radio show which featured
many opera singers and was truly an anchor for Franco Corelli.
I met Stefan at the home of TV opera pioneer Lina Del Tinto and her husband Harry
Demarsky and found Stefan to be not only extraordinarily intelligent, but a delightful dinner
companion with a strong wit and willing ear. Mr. Zucker discusses 54 tenors spanning 200
years from cast ratings to castrati!
The great composers wrote music as well as the embellishments so championed by the
great singers of the day. The singers knowledge allowed them to enhance the music with
phenomenal scales and variations. But things changed and composer Gioacchino Rossini felt
that a grand era was ending and that singing was becoming lackluster. Gilbert Louis Duprez
formed a high C in singing that swept the opera world.
Farinelli and Velluti were not the name of a law firm in Italy but were two of the great
castrati who, like dinosaurs, reigned supreme. The castrati recalled my grandmother
Rosalia's Easter and Thanksgiving feast which was a delicious capon with its tender breast
meat - always tasty - never fowl. These birds were a delicious blend of male and female
capabilities that evoked unique (eunuch) rich voices and many rhapsodic fans of both
culinary succulents and operatic ecstasy! The last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi (1858-
1922), made a series of recordings with the Vatican choir in 1902-4-for the Gaisberg
Brothers, who also recorded the young Enrico Caruso as well as 93 year old Pope Leo 13th.
While Moreschi was not a great castrato, he sang with rooster like tones, haunting and sad.
Gioachino Rossini admired the castrati who themselves added the coloratura and vocal
displays that thrilled and drove audiences to a Farinelli frenzy. When my grandparents re-
visited Gangi, Sicily in the Madonie Mountains near Palermo in 1939, they took their son my
Uncle Ignacio along. They planned a big surprise. The surprise was a farm girl who
scrambled pigs testicles in a pan with eggs and milk. It was made for adolescent young men
and was called "La Festa di Pape." (The feast of Popes) He had the good sense to say NO,
thank you! He is 91 today and a retired ballroom dancer. (Bill Tano) guess he didn't need
that extra testicular jolt!
Giovanni Battista Velluti who was a "ladies man" rather than the opposite (man's lady), was
the last operatic castrato hero and Rossini and others mourned the loss of the great "senza
gazze." Giovanni Battista Roubini (1795-1854) was a fabulous high C tenor who studied
with Andrea Nozzari and sang some of the repertory of Giovanni David, who was called the
"Paganini of Song." Two wonderful illustrations of Roubini are enchanting. There is a lengthy
segment on "Balls" and the varied surgeries that made castratos.
The new school of "high C " tenors took hold ultimately, leading to such stars as Francesco
Tamagno (1850-1905) Verdi's first Otello, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), Beniamino Gigli
(1890-1957), Giacomo Lauri-Volpi)(1892-1979), Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969), Mario Del
Monaco and Franco Corelli. When Enrico Caruso passed away in 1921, the world went into
mourning. Tenor Giovanni Martinelli said Lauri-Volpi, Beniamino Gigli and he had to sing the
late Caruso's roles. Mario Del Monaco (1915-1982) was a handsome, robust voiced tenor
whose rise to fame was about the same as Franco Corelli. They became intense rivals. I saw
both these great tenors in their prime. As soon as Del Monaco heard of Corelli coming to the
Metropolitan Opera, he left. Del Monaco was not a relaxed singer. You felt the tension and
saw his muscles collaborate and his burnished and dramatic tones rocked the house. Del
Monaco, who I saw in Norma with Callas at the Met made a film where he was heard as
"The Young Caruso." He was also quite an exhibitionist-but that's another story. Franco
Corelli would step back, open up and out would fly these free and furious notes, defiant and
heroic. Once he tapered the tone to a whisper at the end of Celeste Aida. His defiance of his
Turandot, Birgit Nilsson was an outpouring of two volcanoes, his melting kiss was a triple
gelato almost too much to bear. Corelli said it would not be out of place if he saw Del
Monaco and punched him in the jaw. Corelli did bite Birgit Nilsson on the neck in Turandot
when she held their duet note longer than he and ran offstage in Italy to challenge a
student who booed him-with sword in hand!
A friend, artist and Italofile James Albano, told me of Corelli's singing of Calaf in Vienna that
had women throwing their keys at him. Corelli's wife Loretta was in constant tension about
these real or imagined liaisons. She said "I was extremely jealous. If I didn't have 10
fingernails, I had 20, to scratch out the eyes of women who were after Franco." Corelli said
that soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara was his greatest love (She was a brilliant Tosca), but he and
Loretta stayed married. Franco Corelli sang at The Metropolitan Opera from 1961 until 1975.
In 1975, Corelli and Tebaldi sang a legendary concert at Brooklyn College. That's the year
they both left the Metropolitan Opera. They were, according to Zucker, associates and
friends, not lovers. There is a chapter on Corelli's various liaisons, mistresses and flirtations.
This splendid book has many glorious photographs including those of Franco and Loretta.
They were a handsome couple and one extraordinary shot of Franco Corelli as Turiddu and
Brooklyn's great tenor Richard Tucker as Canio. Can you imagine, seeing them both on the
same night. I did! Corelli was a superb Turiddu and Tucker a great Canio. Corelli's "Addio
alle Madre" was impassioned and Richard Tucker's heartbreaking "Vesti la Giubba" and his
screamed "La commedia e finita" haunt the memory! They too were rivals but "friendly"
ones. Tucker and Corelli became closer as time passed. Tucker told Corelli how to secure a
note (or the other way around) and they were much friendlier after that. Metropolitan Opera
Manager Sir Rudolf Bing used to assuage them by threatening to pay the other one dollar
more! I recall seeing Franco Corelli at Richard Tucker's (1913-1975) wake at the Campbell
Funeral Home in New York in 1975 and he looked, in his grief, as if he had been punched in
the stomach. Tucker had a brilliant 30 year career with the Metropolitan Opera. Tucker still
lives on through The Richard Tucker Music Foundation run by his industrious son Barry.
Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) had a voice of incredible sweetness and honeyed tone. He
could "cover" and also add some delicious "fortes" and made about 20 films including
Forget Me Not, in England where he sang "Non Ti Scordar di me" and "Mama." In
"Mamma," (1940) Gigli sang the title song and the delightful "Se vuoi goder la vita," where
his diminishing tones were breathtaking. Corelli listened and learned. He was no Gigli but he
was renowned for his dimuendos and silvery masculine tones. Gigli's final film was the
charming Taxi di notte in 1953. I would go to the Benson Theatre with my grandparents
Antonio and Rosalia Pantano to see his films. She would loudly curse the villains both wife
and her lover and weep for the poor cuckolded Gigli!
Gigli succeeded the mighty Caruso at the Met (1920-1932 and again in 1939 to
demonstrate his Radames. He came back to America for three Carnegie Hall concerts at age
65 in 1955. I attended one of the concerts where Gigli sang a dozen arias and about 15
encores. He covered beautifully and his "covering" pianissimi were still prominent, his top, a
bit short but quite thrilling. At age 65 he was still a wonder. His intoxicating and emotional
"E Lucevan le stelle" tore the house down. His "Oy Marie," and "Quanno a femmena vo"
drove the audience to a frenzy. It's all been recorded and is incredible to see, but also to
witness - amazing! According to Zucker, Gigli's greatest gift was "chiaroscuro of timbre."
I met Franco Corelli at a Michael Sisca's "La Follia" concert when he was about 80. I kissed
his hand in respect. He said "No, no, no!" But I thanked him for the visceral thrills he gave
me and so many. Corelli was a very nervous performer. His professional recordings don't
have the special "edge" that his "live" performances had. I recall with a shiver and a smile
his incredible performances in his prime, but I never listen to his recordings for comfort or
inspiration. Occasionally I play Gigli (I love his Spanish song "Marta") and I always find
comfort in Caruso. When not in a tenor mood, it's great basso Ezio Pinza who moves me.
Once in a while I play (castrato) Moreschis's "Ideale" with his haunting ironic torment. On
occasion, Martinelli, Peerce, Tucker, Melchior and Sicilian tenor De Stefano help fill the void.
I wish to thank Stefan Zucker for his brilliant and stimulating book with its vital and vibrant
photographs. It is what opera is really about and of the importance of all these great artists
who used their vocal talents to remind us of the troubador. Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi,
Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Verdi and Puccini surely second the motion. Soprano Gigliola
Frazzoni said, "Corelli was the Callas of tenors!" This splendid book has 351 pages adorned
with many magnificent photographs of Franco Corelli in costume and with his wife Loretta
and other artists from Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi to great baritone Tito Gobbi. Illustrations
of the distant past singers are incredibly artful and truly make the reader part of the action.
Whether its romance, gossip, technical truths or memory refreshing, this book stands out as
stimulating reading for the next year and decades to come. I strongly recommend Stefan
Zucker's Franco Corelli and - A Revolution in Singing (Volume Two) as I did Volume One.
We eagerly await "Hitler's Tenor," a book on Beniamino Gigli, another tenor from the Adriatic
(Recanati) whose world wide fame put him among the gods of opera as well as thrilling
audiences worldwide for over 40 years! Some may object to the relationship of Gigli to the
German Nazi regime but all that will come out in Stephan Zucker's new book. My advice is
listen to Corelli and Gigli! It is artistry, voice and the universal pleasure reserved for angels
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