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Franco Corelli Biography

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Franco Corelli (8 April 1921 – 29 October 2003) was an Italian tenor active in opera from the 1950s to 1976. He was noted for his charismatic stage presence and physical attractiveness as well as his powerful voice.

He was born in Ancona, the son of a ship worker. He studied briefly at the Pesaro Conservatory of Music, but found his voice shrinking in size and range. He turned instead to the recordings of other tenors, especially Caruso and Gigli, and began his career essentially self-taught. In 1951, he won the Maggio Musicale in Florence, earning a debut at the Spoleto Music Festival, where he sang Don José in Carmen. He debuted at the Rome Opera in 1953 in Riccardo Zandonai's Giulietta e Romeo, and quickly became a steadfast member of the company, with an active repertory of some thirty roles.

Some critics, especially in English-speaking countries, dismissed him as provincial and self-indulgent, and his technique, which he claimed was based on a lowered larynx, as unnecessarily athletic. After his 1957 Covent Garden debut--with Milanov in "Tosca"--he rarely sang in Britain. Innately musical, he worked constantly throughout his career to refine his technical prowess. (He is believed to have taped virtually every one of his performances, a tantalizing prospect, especially because two of his greatest and most important undertakings are not known to exist in sound. These are the La Scala performances of Giordano's "Fedora," and Bellini's "Il Pirata," both with the legendary Maria Callas. Ghiringelli, the head of La Scala, was feuding with Callas at the time of these performances and would not allow them to be broadcast).

Corelli had begun his career with a fast vibrato, sometimes called a "caprino," but well before his Met debut he had managed to eliminate this. He became famous for his ability to sing at many dynamic levels, unusual in a so large a voice; for example, he performed the climactic high note that ends "Celeste Aida" with a diminuendo, an amazingly difficult effect for a tenore robusto. He credited the Italian tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, himself one of the most important tenors of the 20th century, with helping him refine his technique. Without Lauri-Volpi's instruction, Corelli said, "there would just have been one more baritone." Although his French was never idiomatic, he included Gounod's "Romeo" in his active repertoire and recorded "Faust"; one of his greatest triumphs came as Raoul in Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots," an extremely high-lying part, which he performed in the famous La Scala revival of 1962. Late in his career he undertook thge title role in Massenet's "Werther".

Throughout the 1960's, Corelli's position as the greatest Italian tenor in the world was secure. With his unusually dark vocal color and baritonal lower range he infused even the warhorses of Neapolitan songs like 'O Sole Mio' with freshness and authenticity, while his huge and electrifying top notes moved audiences to roaring delirium. He was a galvanic stage animal, and a very handsome man. In Italy, he was called "Golden Thighs." Every Corelli performance was a little like a bullfight.

In 1958 he married Loretta di Lelio, daughter of a well-known Milanese basso and herself a character soprano, who became his public relations agent. After performances, Corelli's wife would be waiting in his dressing room with a list of criticisms--and ready to back them up with those now-elusive audio tapes. The couple's screaming fights, before, during and after performances, are legendary.

Corelli made his debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera on 27 January 1961 as Manrico in Il Trovatore, in a double debut with Leontyne Price. The combination produced a fiery performance that ended with a 42-minute ovation. His debut, however, was clearly overshadowed by Price's. The next day, New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote of Price: "Her voice, warm and luscious, has enough volume to fill the house with ease, and she has a good technique to back up the voice itself. She even took the trills as written, and nothing in the part as Verdi wrote it gave her the last bit of trouble....Voice is what counts, and voice is what Miss Price has." He was somewhat less complimentary about Corelli noting his "exciting animal drive" and his need for some refining polish. According to Met general manager Rudolf Bing's later memoirs, Corelli was so furious at his reception, that he locked himself in his hotel room and the Met's staff had to beg him to come out. Corelli may not have understood that Price's Met debut was a political as well as a musical event. The Civil Rights movement was gathering force and friends and movement supporters had traveled to New York to cheer her on.

Later that season Corelli and Birgit Nilsson put Turandot back in the standard repertory at the Met. He eventually sang nineteen roles in fifteen seasons and became a fixture there.

Despite his virile, heroic stage presence, Corelli suffered from terrible stage fright. "They had to push him on stage," the soprano Renata Scotto recalled. Nilsson claimed humorously that Corelli once bit her during a performance of Turandot because in a duet she held a high note longer than he had. Later, Nilsson wired Rudolf Bing, "Cannot sing. Have rabies." He and Nilsson were also known to verbally spar on the stage. Despite these sparks, Nilsson appeared frequently with Corelli, and recorded "Turandot" as well as "Tosca" with him. While Nilsson's tongue-in-cheek account may be questioned, there is no doubt that Corelli and basso Boris Christoff came to blows on stage and never sang together afterwards, and that Corelli once raced to a box to confront a fellow who had booed him as Manrico. When they were separated, Corelli had his hand on the hilt of his stage sword, ready to draw.

Corelli retired from the stage in 1976 at the young age of 55. At the time, there was much regret that he had never undertaken the role which many believed would have been his greatest, Verdi's "Otello," which he was rumored to be preparing. In light of his crippling stage fright, the huge demands of this role may have scared him into retirement a little early, but by the mid-70's the voice was in decline, no longer backed by the sheer animal strength that had, in a sense, created it.

Fortunately Corelli left many commercial recordings and many more live ones. Among the greatest are the title part in Donizetti's "Poliuto", several "Trovatore" performances, and, with Tito Gobbi, a wonderful performance of Puccini's wild-west opera, "La Fanciulla del West". In purely vocal terms--and in terms of his tremendously exciting stage presence--he has not been equalled by any tenor.

He died in Milan in 2003, having suffered a stroke earlier that year and was interred there in the Cimitero Monumentale .
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