Giovanni Martinelli, October 22, 1885 to February 2, 1969, for many years the Metropolitan Opera’s leading dramatic tenor, and one of the last to carry on the tradition of Enrico Caruso, died in New York at 83.

The world-famous performer rose from rural choir boy, squeaked through a nearly ruinous audition with Arturo Toscanini, and went on to compile a record that few in opera have equaled. His name was legendary in the famous opera house when he retired in 1946 to become a vocal coach.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what was special about Martinelli was both the size of his voice and the vocal production. He had what the Italians call “lo squillo”, which means that at the top of the voice he had a bell-like sound. Sometimes in English, we say “ping”. There was no tension in the voice, and for him to have lasted as long as he did, he had to keep pressure and tension off the voice. He was Caruso’s successor.

Leonora – Rosa Ponselle
Don Alvaro – Giovanni Martinelli
Il Guardiano – Ezio Pinza

1928

La Forza del Destino, Act IV, scene II

DON CARLO (dentro la scena)
Io muoio! Confessione! L’alma salvate.

DON ALVARO (entrando con la spada sguainata)
È questo ancora sangue d’un Vargas.

DON CARLO
Confessione…

DON ALVARO (gettando la spada a terra)
Maledetto io sono;
ma…qui presso è un eremita…
(Corre alla grotta e batte alla porta.)
A confortar correte un uom che muor…

LEONORA (dall’interno)
Nol posso.

DON ALVARO
Fratello! In nome del Signor.

LEONORA
Nol posso.

DON ALVARO (battendo più forte)
È d’uopo.
LEONORA (dall’interno, suonando la campana)
Aiuto! Aiuto!

DON ALVARO
Deh, venite!
(Leonora si presenta sulla porta.)

LEONORA
Temerari, del ciel l’ira fuggite!

DON ALVARO
Una donna! Qual voce!
Ah no…uno spettro…

LEONORA (riconoscendo Don Alvaro)
Che miro!

DON ALVARO
Tu…Leonora…

LEONORA
Egli è ben desso…
Io ti riveggo ancora…

DON ALVARO
Lungi…lungi da me…queste mie mani
grondano sangue. Indietro!

LEONORA
Che mai parli?

DON ALVARO (indicando il bosco)
Là giace spento un uom.
LEONORA
Tu l’uccidesti?

DON ALVARO
Tutto tentai per evitar la pugna.
Chiusi i miei dì nel chiostro.
Ei mi raggiunse…m’insultò…l’uccisi.

LEONORA
Ed era?

DON ALVARO
Tuo fratello!

LEONORA
Gran Dio!
(Corre ansante verso il bosco.)

DON ALVARO
Destino avverso, come a scherno mi prendi!
Vive Leonora e ritrovarla deggio
or che versai di suo fratello il sangue!

LEONORA (dall’interno, mette un grido)
Ah!

DON ALVARO
Qual grido! Che avvenne?
(Leonora ferita entra sostenuta dal Guardiano.)
Ella, ferita!

LEONORA (morente)
Nell’ora estrema perdonar non seppe.
E l’onta vendicò nel sangue mio.
DON ALVARO
E tu paga non eri, o vendetta di Dio!
Maledizione!

GUARDIANO
Non imprecare, umiliati
a Lui ch’è giusto e santo,
che adduce a eterni gaudii
per una via di pianto;
d’ira e furor sacrilego
non proferir parola;
vedi, vedi quest’angiol vola
al trono del Signor.

LEONORA
Sì, piangi e prega.
Di Dio il perdono io ti prometto.

DON ALVARO
Un reprobo, un maledetto io sono.
Flutto di sangue inalzasi fra noi.

LEONORA
Piangi! Prega!

GUARDIANO
Prostrati!

LEONORA
Di Dio il perdon io ti prometto. Prega!

DON ALVARO
A quell’accento più non poss’io resistere.
(Si getta ai piedi di Leonora.)
GUARDIANO
Prostrati!

DON ALVARO
Leonora, io son redento,
dal ciel son perdonato!

LEONORA e GUARDIANO
Sia lode a Te, Signor.

LEONORA (a Don Alvaro)
Lieta poss’io precederti
alla promessa terra.
Là cesserà la guerra,
santo l’amor, santo l’amor sarà.

DON ALVARO
Tu mi condanni a vivere
e m’abbandoni intanto!
Il reo, il reo soltanto
dunque impunito andrà!

GUARDIANO
Santa del suo martirio,
ella al Signor ascenda,
e il suo morire ne apprenda
la fede, la pietà!

LEONORA
In ciel ti attendo, addio!

DON ALVARO
Deh, non lasciarmi, Leonora, ah no, non lasciarmi…
GUARDIANO
E il suo martirio, ecc.

LEONORA
Ah…ti precedo…Alvaro…Ah… Alvar…Ah!
(Muore.)

DON ALVARO
Morta!

GUARDIANO
Salita a Dio!

The Force of Destiny, Act IV, scene II

DON CARLO (off-stage)
I am dying! Confession! Save my soul!

DON ALAVARO (entering with drawn sword)
This, too, is the blood of a Vargas.

DON CARLO
Confession! –

DON ALVARO (throwing down his sword)
I am damned;
but nearby there is a hermitage…
(Alvaro runs to the cave and knocks.)
Come quickly, to console a dying man…

LEONORA (within)
I cannot.

DON ALVARO
Brother! in the Saviour’s name!

LEONORA
I cannot.

DON ALVARO (knocking harder)
You must.
LEONORA (within, ringing the bell)
Help! Help!

DON ALVARO
Ah, come!
(Leonora appears at the door.)

LEONORA
Rash man, flee from the wrath of Heaven!

DON ALVARO
A woman! This voice!
Ah no, a ghost –

LEONORA (recognising Don Alvaro)
What do I see!

DON ALVARO
You – Leonora –

LEONORA
It is really he…
I see you once again –

DON ALVARO
Do not come near me – these hands
are drenched with blood. Away!

LEONORA
What are you saying?

DON ALVARO (pointing to the grove)
There a man lies dead.
LEONORA
You killed him?

DON ALVARO
I did all I could to avoid fighting.
I had left the world for the cloister.
He found me, insulted me, I killed him.

LEONORA
And who was he?

DON ALVARO
Your brother!

LEONORA
O God!
(She runs towards the grove.)

DON ALVARO
Cruel destiny, how you mock at me!
Leonora is alive, and I must find her
only when I have split her brother’s blood!

LEONORA (crying out, from off-stage)
Ah!

DON ALVARO
What a cry! What has happened?
(Leonora, wounded, enters supported by Father
Guardiano.)
She – wounded!

LEONORA (dying)
Even in his last hour, he could not forgive.
And he avenged our shame with my blood.
DON ALVARO
Not even with his death was the vengeance of God
satisfied! Curses!

GUARDIANO
Do not curse; humble yourself
before Him who is holy and just,
who leads us to eternal joys
over a road of tears.
Do not speak a word
of blasphemous wrath and fury.
while this angel is leaving us,
flying to the throne of God.

LEONORA
Yes, weep – and pray.
I promise you God’s pardon.

DON ALVARO
An outcast, a damned soul am I.
A flood of blood surges between us.

LEONORA
Weep and pray!

GUARDIANO
Kneel!

LEONORA
I promise you God’s pardon. Pray!

DON ALVARO
I cannot resist this voice any longer.
(He throws himself at her feet.)
GUARDIANO
Kneel!

DON ALVARO
Leonora, I am redeemed –
Heaven has pardoned me, has pardoned me!

LEONORA and GUARDIANO
Praise be to thee, o Lord.

LEONORA (to Don Alvaro)
Joyfully now I go before you,
into the Promised Land.
There, this strife cannot follow us,
and holiness will bless our love.

DON ALVARO
You condemn me to live on
abandoning me here on earth!
Only the guilty one, I see,
will escape punishment!

GUARDIANO
Made blessed through her martyrdom,
may she now rise to the Lord,
and may her death teach you to know
what faith means!

LEONORA
I wait for you in heaven. Goodbye!

DON ALVARO
Ah, do not leave me, Leonora, do not leave me…
GUARDIANO
And may her death, etc.

LEONORA
Ah… I go before you…Alvaro…Ah…Alvar…Ah!
(She dies.)

DON ALVARO
Dead!

GUARDIANO
She has ascended to God!

Leonora – Rosa Ponselle
Manrico – Giovanni Martinelli

There is not a date given for the recording, but given the quality, I suspect that it was close to 1928.

Il Trovatore, Act IV, scene I

FRATI (dall’interno)
Miserere d’un’alma già vicina
alla partenza che non ha ritorno.
Miserere di lei, bontà divina,
preda non sia dell’infernal soggiorno.

LEONORA
Quel suon, quelle preci
solenni, funeste,
empiron quest’aere
di cupo terror!
Contende l’ambascia,
che tutta m’investe,
al labbro il respiro,
i palpiti al cor!

MANRICO (dalla torre)
Ah! che la morte ognora
è tarda nel venir,
a chi desia morir!

Addio, addio Leonora, addio!

LEONORA
Oh ciel! Sento mancarmi!

FRATI
Miserere, ecc.

LEONORA
Sull’orrida torre,
ahi, par che la morte
con ali di tenebre
librando si va!
Ahi! forse dischiuse
gli fian queste porte
sol quando cadaver
già freddo sarà!

FRATI
Miserere… miserere… miserere…

MANRICO
Sconto col sangue mio
l’amor che posi in te!
Non ti scordar, non ti scordar di me,
Leonora, addio! Leonora, addio!

LEONORA
Di, te, di te scordarmi!
Sento mancarmi! ecc.

The Troubadour, Act IV, scene I

MONKS (from within)
Have mercy on a spirit approaching
the departure which has no return.
Have mercy on him, divine Goodness.
Keep him from being the prey of hell.

LEONORA
That sound, those prayers,
so solemn and dire,
fill the air
with baleful terror!
The distress
that fills me almost deprives
my lips of their breath,
my heart of its beating!

MANRICO (from the tower)
Ah! how slow Death
is in its coming,
to him who longs to die!

MANRICO
Farewell, Leonora, Farewell!

LEONORA
Oh heaven! I feel faint!

MONKS
Have mercy, etc.

LEONORA
Over the horrid tower,
ah, Death seems
with wings of darkness
to be poised!
Ah, perhaps these doors
will be opened for him,
only when his corpse
is already cold!

MONKS
Have mercy… have mercy… have mercy…

MANRICO
I’m paying with my blood
for the love I bore you!
Don’t forget, don’t forget me,
Leonora, farewell, Leonora, farewell!

LEONORA
Forget you! Forget you!
I feel faint! etc.

M’apparì from Flowtow’s Martha

M’appari tutt’amor;
il mio sguardo l’incontrò
bella sì che il mio cor
ansioso a lei volò;
mi ferì, m’invaghì
quell’angelica beltà
sculta in cor dall’amor,
cancellarsi non potrà,
il pensier di poter
palpitar con lei d’amor;
può soprir il martir
che m’affanna e strazia il cor!
Marta. Marta, tu sparisti
e il mio cor col tuo n’ando!
Tu la pace mi rapisti,
di dolor jo morirò ah!
di dolor morró, al, morró! ah!

M’apparì from Flotow’s Martha

She appeared to me, full of love,
my eyes caught sight of her;
so beautiful that my heart
flew to her with longing;
was wounded and inflamed
by her angelic beauty
which love has engraved in my heart,
and which cannot be erased,
and the mere thought
of her responding to my passion
is able to appease the suffering
which distresses me and breaks my heart!
Martha, Martha, you have vanished,
and my heart went with you!
You have stolen my peace of mind,
I shall die of grief,
I shall die, shall die of grief!

Giovanni Martinelli

Giovanni Martinelli was born into a large family; he was the eldest of fourteen children. During his military service he served as a bandsman, but the power of his voice so impressed his bandmaster that he arranged singing lessons for him with Giuseppe Mandolini in Milan. Martinelli’s very first role on-stage was the Messenger / Aida: this was in 1908 and his formal debut came in 1910, with Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan when he substituted for the tenor Giuseppe Sala. His immediate success led to his appearance at the same theatre in the title role of Ernani a few weeks later.

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West had its Italian premiere in Rome during 1911. Together with tenor Amedeo Bassi, Martinelli auditioned successfully before Toscanini, Puccini and Ricordi for the part of Dick Johnson. Martinelli sang the final three performances in Rome, after which he sang the part in the first performances at La Scala, Milan in 1912, with Toscanini conducting, as well as in productions later mounted at Naples, Brescia, Genoa and Monte Carlo. In 1912 also Martinelli enjoyed a successful debut at the Royal Opera House in London as Cavaradossi / Tosca. Later roles in London included Canio / Pagliacci, Pinkerton / Madama Butterfly, Rodolfo / La Bohème, Dick Johnson (1912), Gennaro / I gioielli della Madonna (Wolf-Ferrari, 1913), Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera and Paolo / Francesca da Rimini (Zandonai, 1914), a role which he also sang at the opera’s Italian premiere in Milan during 1916.

Martinelli made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1913 as Rodolfo; this company was to be his principal arena of activity until 1945. During this time he sang more than 900 performances of thirty-eight operas. At the Met he became a close colleague of Caruso, who gave him his costume for Canio; and after Caruso’s death in 1921 Martinelli assumed many of his dramatic roles. He proved to be an outstanding singer of the often taxing dramatic tenor roles in operas by Verdi, such as Manrico / Il trovatore, Radamès / Aida and Alvaro / La forza del destino; as well as of other demanding parts such as Raoul / Les Huguenots, Jean / Le Prophète, Vasco / L’Africaine, Eleazar / La Juive, Don José / Carmen, Enzo / La Gioconda, des Grieux / Manon Lescaut and the title role in Andrea Chénier. Roles in premieres at the Met in which he participated included Lefèvre / Madame Sans-Gêne (Giordano, 1915), Fernando / Goyescas (Granados, 1916) and Huon / Oberon (Weber, 1918); and in their US premieres Lensky / Eugene Onegin (1920), Carlo / Don Carlo (1920), Heinrich / La campana sommersa (Respighi, 1928) and Gabriele / Simon Boccanegra (1932).

His farewell performance at the Met was in 1945 as Pollione / Norma, although he continued to sing in fund-raising events at the Met and in 1967, at the age of eighty-two, sang the Emperor in Turandot. From 1946 onwards he was active in New York as a teacher.