April 8, 1921 – October 29, 2003
The enthusiasm for Corelli among opera fans was not always shared by connoisseurs and critics. A largely self-taught singer who came to music late and considered voice teachers ”dangerous people” and a ”plague to singers,” Mr. Corelli was faulted by some for the sheer athleticism and raw passion in his singing. Those same qualities drove other opera buffs to ecstasy.
Mr. Corelli was famous for shamelessly prolonging full-voiced, climactic top notes. On a pirated recording of his 1957 debut at the Royal Opera House in London, in Puccini’s ”Tosca,” he holds Cavaradossi’s defiant, high-note cry of ”Vittoria!” in Act II for a full 12 seconds, causing the audience to erupt with bravos even as the music continues.
But Mr. Corelli had plenty of defenders, including Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times. Reviewing Mr. Corelli’s Cavaradossi in a 1965 Met production with Maria Callas, Mr. Schonberg said that the tenor’s voice ”rolled through the house in a glorious manner.” Noting the expressive liberties taken by Mr. Corelli, he added that the performance ”had its own kind of logic.”
Mr. Corelli was a greater artist than he was often given credit for. Displaying impressive curiosity and intelligence, he championed neglected operas, like Donizetti’s ”Poliuto,” as well as contemporary works like Salvatore Allegra’s 1946 ”Romulus.” He contributed significantly to the revived interest in the early-19th-century composer Gasparo Spontini by making his 1954 La Scala debut in ”La Vestale,” which also starred Callas, and by performing Spontini’s grand German opera ”Agnes von Hohenstaufen,” an obscure work, at the Maggio Musicale in Florence.
He did not deny the story of his angrily attacking a student in a third-tier box who heckled him at the opera house in Naples, Italy, during a performance of ”Il Trovatore.” Outraged, Mr. Corelli bounded backstage, ran up three flights of stairs to the box and, finding the door locked, broke it down with his shoulder. In his Manrico costume, complete with sword, Mr. Corelli charged at the young man, but was restrained by two ushers. He was so infuriated that he lost his voice for 20 minutes, returning to the stage just in time to sing what he always considered his greatest account ever of the call-for-revenge tenor aria ”Di Quella Pira.”
Franco Corelli was born on April 8, 1921, in Ancona, part of a region of Italy that produced Beniamino Gigli, Mario Del Monaco, Renata Tebaldi and several other illustrious singers. His father was a ship worker and his family had no particular background in music. Born 10 yards from the Adriatic coastline, he loved the sea and enrolled in a naval engineering program at the University of Bologna. His studies were cut short when a friend, an amateur singer impressed by Mr. Corelli’s raw vocal talent, urged him to enter a competition. Though he lost, he was sufficiently encouraged to enter the Pesaro Conservatory of Music.
Three months after his solid outing as Don José, he joined the Rome Opera, where he based himself for four years. His debut there came in 1953 in a difficult 1922 opera, Zandonai’s ”Giulietta e Romeo.” Before long he was known for memorable accounts of the leading tenor roles in Giordano’s ”Andrea Chénier,” Mascagni’s ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” Puccini’s ”Fanciulla del West” and ”Bohème,” and Verdi’s ”Aida,” ”Don Carlos” and ”Ernani.” His active repertory eventually included some 30 roles.
Mr. Corelli became indispensable to the Met, singing 19 roles in 15 seasons for a total of 365 performances. Knowing that his handsome physique was part of his allure, Mr. Corelli readily supplied his fans with his vital statistics: 6 feet 1 inch tall; nearly 200 pounds; a chest measuring, at rest, 47 inches.