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Giovanni Martinelli, one of the great tenors

By November 20, 2019March 18th, 2023No Comments

Giovanni Martinelli (October 22, 1885 – February 2, 1969) stared in the premier of La Fanciulla del West in Rome.  He was selected by Puccini and Toscanini .

By 1911, Martinelli was singing at the Metropolitan where he eventually sang for 32 seasons and became known as “The Lion of the Met” until he retired from the stage after 926 performances. Once at the Metropolitan he became good friends with Enrico Caruso whom he admired deeply and who once declared him to be his “Crown Prince.”

M’ apparì

M’appari tutt’ amor,
il mio sguardo l’incontrò;
bella si che il mio cor,
ansioso a lei volo;
mi ferì, m’invaghì
quell’ angelica beltà,
sculta in cor dall’amor
cancellarsi non potrà:
il pensier di poter
palpitar con lei d’amor,
puo sopir il martir
che m’affana e strazia il cor.

M’appari tutt’amor,
il mio sguardo l’incontrò;
bella si che il mio cor
ansioso a lei volo;
Marta, Marta tu sparisti
e il mio cor col tuo n’ando!
Tu la pace mi rapisti,
di dolor io morirò.

She appeared to me

She appeared to me, purest of love.
I discovered with my eyes this vision of delight.
Lovely was she, that my hungry heart,
In a snap, to her did fly;
I was hurt, I was charmed
By that beauty from above.
Love is etched in my heart,
And cannot now be erased.
The mere thought that our hearts
With sweet love might beat as one
Is enough to forget all the sorrow
That fills my heart.

She appeared to me, purest of love.
I discovered with my eyes this vision of delight.
Lovely was she, that my hungry heart,
In a snap to her did fly.
Marta, Marta, you have left me,
And my heart along with yours has vanished away!
You’ve taken away my peace,
I will surely die of pain.

Here is Jonas Kaufmann singing the aria in German. See if you can hear the difference.

This next aria is Lenksky’s aria from Eugen Onegin, by Tchaikovsky. It is sung in Italian. I will give only the English below because it is next to impossible to find this aria translated into Italian from the original Russian.

Where, where

Where, oh where have you gone,
Golden days of my spring?
What does the coming day have in store for me?
It escapes my eyes
it is hidden in deep darkness!
But, nevertheless, the law of fate cannot be wrong
Shall I fall to the deadly arrow
or will it pass by?
All for the better.  For life and for sleep
there is a pre-determined time
Blessed is a day of simple tasks
And blessed is the day of darkness.
When the day-beam shines in the morning
and the bright day shall reign
But, I perhaps will descend
into mysterious darkness of my fatal tomb?
And the memory of a young poet
will fall into an Abyss.
The world shall forget me, but you, you Olga!
Tell me, will you, the maiden of beauty,
come to shed a tear over the early urn?
And think, “he loved me,
he devoted to me
the gloomy dawn of his troubled life!”
Yes, Olga, I did love you!
You have a single dedicated (lover)
Dawn (of a ) sad stormy life!
Ah, Olga, I love you!
my beloved friend, my dear friend
Come, come!
beloved friend, do come for I am your spouse
do come, for I am your spouse
Come, come
I am waiting for you, oh beloved friend
Come, come, for I am your spouse
Where, where, where have you gone,
golden days, golden days of my spring?


Io ti seguii come iride di pace
Lungo le vie del cielo:
Io ti seguii come un’amica face
De la notte nel velo.
E ti sentii ne la luce, ne l’aria,
Nel profumo dei fiori;
E fu piena la stanza solitaria
Di te, dei tuoi splendori.

In te rapito, al suon de la tua voce,
Lungamente sognai;
E de la terra ogni affanno, ogni croce,
In quel sogno scordai.
Torna, caro ideal, torna un istante
A sorridermi ancora,
E a me risplenderà, nel tuo sembiante,
Una novella aurora.

The Ideal

I followed you like a rainbow of peace
along the paths of heaven;
I followed you like a friendly torch
in the veil of darkness,
and I sensed you in the light, in the air,
in the perfume of flowers,
and the solitary room was full
of you and of your radiance.

Absorbed by you, I dreamed a long time
of the sound of your voice,
and earth’s every anxiety, every torment
I forgot in that dream.
Come back, dear ideal, for an instant
to smile at me again,
and in your face will shine for me
a new dawn.

This aria from Otello, “Sì, pel ciel”, is when Iago gives Otello false evidence to prompt to kill Desdemona. There are recordings from four different time periods.

Compare to Aris Argiris (Baritone) and Luis Chapa (Tenor) and see if can notice a difference. One big difference is that they are never in tune.

Oh! mostruosa colpa!

Io non narrai che un sogno.

Un sogno che rivela un fatto.

Un sogno che può dar
forma di prova ad altro indizio.

E qual?

Talor vedeste in mano di Desdemona,
un tessuto trapunto a fior
e più sottil d’un velo?

È il fazzoletto ch’io le diedi,
pegno primo d’amor.

Quel fazzoletto ieri – certo ne son –
lo vidi in man di Cassio.

Ah! – mille vite gli donasse Iddio!
Una è povera preda al furor mio!!
Jago, ho il cor di gelo.
Lungi da me le pietose larve.
Tutto il mio vano amor esalo al cielo.
Guardami… ei sparve!
Nelle sue spire d’angue
l’idra m’avvince!
Ah! sangue! sangue! sangue!
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori!
Per la Morte e per l’oscuro
mar sterminator!
D’ira e d’impeto tremendo
presto fia che sfolgori

(levando le mani al cielo)
questa man ch’io levo e stendo!
(Fa per alzarsi; Jago lo trattiene inginocchiato.)

JAGO (inginocchiandosi anch’esso)
Non v’alzate ancor!
Testimon è il Sol ch’io miro,
che m’irradia e innanima
l’ampia terra e il vasto spiro
del Creato inter,
che ad Otello io sacro ardenti,
core, braccio ed anima
s’anco ad opere cruenti
s’armi il suo voler!

(alzando le mani al cielo come chi giura)
Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!
Per le attorte folgori, ecc.
Dio vendicator!

0 monstrous guilt!

1 told you but a dream.

A dream that reveals a fact.

A dream that may
give substance to another circumstance.

And which is that?

Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
embroidered with flowers in Desdemona’s hand,
of finer stuff than lawn?

That is the handkerchief I gave her,
first token of my love.

That handkerchief I saw – I am sure of it –
yesterday in the hand of Cassio!

O, that God had given him a thousand lives!
One is too poor a prey for my revenge!
Iago, my heart is ice.
Banished be the spirits of mercy.
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Watch me…’tis gone!
In its snaky coils
the hydra has entwined me!
O, blood, blood, blood!
(He kneels.)
Now, by yon marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash!
By Death, and by the dark
death-dealing ocean flood!
In fury and dire compulsion
shall thunder-bolts soon rain

(raising his hands to the sky)
from this hand that I raise outstretched!
(He starts to rise; Iago prevents him.)

IAGO (kneeling also)
Do not rise yet!
Witness, you sun that I gaze on,
which lights me and which animates
the broad earth and the spiritual expanse
of the whole universe,
that to Othello I do consecrate
ardently heart, hands and soul
even though on bloody business
his will be bent!

(raising their hands to heaven in an oath-taking gesture)
Now, by yond marble heaven!
By the jagged lightning-flash, etc.
God of vengeance!

Giovanni Martinelli

Giovanni Martinelli was born on October 22, 1885 and he died on February 2, 1969. In 1911, twenty six year old Giovanni Martinelli was asked to sing an audition. There were two men sitting near the stage but he couldn’t see them because the theater lights were dimmed. When he finished, the men came up to meet him. “Yes,” muttered one, “He will do.” “He will do very well,” said the other. “All right young man. We will take you.” The two men were conductor Arturo Toscanini and composer Giacomo Puccini. “Take me? Take me for what?” pleaded the stunned young tenor.

The European premiere of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West” was scheduled for Rome in a few weeks but the role’s creator, Enrico Caruso was not available. Martinelli was hired to sing the star role of Dick Johnson. When La Scala in Milan later decided to stage “Fanciulla”, they planned to hire a different tenor. Puccini wired the La Scala management,“Martinelli sings Johnson or you do not do Fanciulla.” Martinelli sang Dick Johnson at La Scala.

Giovanni Martinelli was born in the northern Italian town of Montagnana. He sang solos in the church choir as a six year old boy. As the eldest of 14 children, his father trained him in the family business – as a cabinet maker – but he also picked grapes, shoed horses, and worked as a blacksmith. After his voice changed he learned to play the clarinet, which served him well when he was drafted into the Italian army because that skill earned him a spot in the regimental band. One day, in a scene duplicated almost exactly by Ezio Pinza several years later, his Captain heard him singing a popular song and was enchanted by his voice. The Captain found sponsors and Giovanni left the army and was sent to Milan with a scholarship for vocal training.

After only six months of study with a very poor teacher, the freshness, naturalness, and spontaneity of his voice had been destroyed. Fortunately Giuseppe Mandolini, a former tenor and friend of the great conductor Tullio Serafin, was able to re-train Martinelli and after three months of intensive work he made a successful operatic debut in 1910, singing the title role in Verdi’s “Ernani.”

Martinelli was never known to speak ill of anyone and, although he certainly knew his own value, he was always willing to listen to advice. When he sang his first performance of Meyerbeer’s “Les Hugenots” an old man came to his dressing room. “Young man,” he said, “You sang magnificently. But there were certain things you did in the duet finale which I do not think were right. May I show you the proper phrasing?”

Martinelli agreed and the old man told him,“I was a pupil at the Paris Conservatoire when Meyerbeer used these phrases to illustrate certain legato effects. He wanted them done this way.” Martinelli tried the method and was amazed that his high C flats came out much more easily. He thanked his coach and asked his name. “Camille Saint Saens,” was the reply. The composer of, among others, the opera “Samson et Dalilah.”

Nobility and dignity formed a large part of Martinelli’s interpretations, but musical intelligence and an ability to bring meaning to what he sang were equally important and, without shouting or false emphasis, he could bring excitement to whatever he sang.

In 1916, Martinelli asked Arrigo Boito (Verdi’s librettist for “Otello”) for help in studying the part. Boito admired Martinelli’s voice and asked him to sing in the premiere of his opera “Nerone.” Boito died two years later but Arturo Toscanini, then director of La Scala, remembered Boito’s preference and offered Martinelli the role. But Toscanini and Giulio Gatti-Casazza, director of the Metropolitan, were feuding – and hated each other. “Go, my friend,” Gatti told Martinelli, “But if you sing for Toscanini you will never sing again at the Metropolitan.” Martinelli stayed at the Met.
Puccini wanted Martinelli to sing the role of Calaf in the world premiere of “Turandot” and coached him in the part shortly before the composer’s death. But Gatti-Casazza said, “I do not stop you going, only if you go do not return to the Metropolitan.” Martinelli did not sing Turandot until 1937 at Covent Garden. Sadly, he never recorded any music from “Turandot.”

When Martinelli was asked to sing Andrea Chenier, he was doubtful. Gigli virtually owned the part by virtue of his gloriously beautiful sound. Martinelli asked the composer, Giordano, about it and Giordano told him, “… Gigli’s voice is the most beautiful lyric tenor in the world today. If you tried to sing the same way, I’d say no. But you are gifted with a far more heroic voice. Chenier can be a dreamy poet, but he can also be a heroic figure. Make him that, and you will succeed.” Andrea Chenier became one of Martinelli’s most successful roles.

In his last years he lectured throughout the United States and in London, talking about composers he had known as well as Verdi and illustrating his lectures with recordings of himself and other singers. In 1967, he was in Seattle when a cast member in a local production of “Turandot” became ill. Martinelli returned to the stage for the first time in 17 years, singing the small part of the Emperor. He gave three performances and donated his fee to Italian Relief.

He was married to Adele Previtali from 1913 until his death and they had three children. Giovanni Martinelli died after open-heart surgery on February 2, 1969 in New York City. His body was later returned to Rome, where his daughters lived, for burial.