Il Trovatore is one of Verdi’s most popular operas, yet it is one of his most confusing. Rather than try to summarize myself, I’m just going to point you to a page with a synopsis in English.
The rest of this post will be about 1 aria, one caballeta, actually – Di quella pira. This cabaletta takes place in Act 3, scene 2, and it requires a dramatic tenor voice. After listening to these different voices, I would like you to ask yourself: why don’t we have tenor voices such as these today. The answer is rather simple, I think, but I’d like you to think about it.
There is one other concept that I’d like to define – lo squillo. This is an Italian phrase used to describe the ringing quality of tenors when they get to the top of their ranges. In the U.S., sometimes the word “ping” is used to mean the same thing. The tenors below all have lo squillo. There is not one tenor alive today that has it. Another thing to think about.
Di quella pira l’orrendo foco
Tutte le fibre m’arse avvampò!…
Empi spegnetela, o ch’io tra poco
Col sangue vostro la spegnerò…
Era già figlio prima d’amarti
Non può frenarmi il tuo martir.
Madre infelice, corro a salvarti,
O teco almeno corro a morir!
Non reggo a colpi tanto funesti…
Oh quanto meglio sarìa morir!
Ruiz, Chorus of soldiers
All’armi, all’armi! eccone presti
A pugnar teco, teco a mori
The flames of that terrible pyre
inflamed and consumed all my being!…
Pitiless men, put it out, or I will shortly
do it with your own blood…
I was your son before I began to love you,
Your torments won’t stop me.
Unhappy mother, I run to rescue you
or I shall die with you!
I can’t stand such fatal blows …
Oh how much better it would be to die!
Ruiz, Chorus of soldiers
To arms, to arms! here it is, quickly
We’ll stab you, we’ll kill you!
Antonio Paoli (1871-1946)
Paoli was the first Puerto Rican opera singer to reach international stardom. At his height, he was called the king of tenors. It has been written that Paoli has been recognized as “one of the most outstanding opera singers of all time,” and as one who had “one of the most lyric and powerful voices…superior even to his contemporary rival, Enrico Caruso.”
After spending his childhood in Ponce, Paoli moved to Spain where, with the assistance of his sister Amalia [also a singer], he obtained a Royal scholarship to take singing lessons in Italy. In 1882, he started his studies under that scholarship, at the Real Monasterio del Escorial. Later, Amalia again helped Paoli’s career by securing a second scholarship to study voice in Italy. He then went to study at the Academia de Canto La Scala in Milan, Italy in 1897, and subsequently debuted in Rossini’s opera “William Tell”, in Paris, only two years later.
After singing to standing ovation crowds in both Spain and Italy, Paoli made his grand debut in Paris, France, where he was encouraged to perform on the highest levels of the world stage. Before the end of the 19th century and while Paoli was still in his twenties, he went on a tour of Europe that earned him both popular acclaim, and imperial honors from princes, kings, and emperors.
When World War I forced the closure of all European opera houses, Paoli made his living as a professional boxer. Unfortunately, he also lost his singing voice during this period. After the War ended, following medical advice and performing vocal exercises, Paoli regained his voice and returned to the international stage, in all the glory of days past. He performed in Europe, North and South America, and finally settled with his sister Amalia in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she had opened a singing school.
Paoli spent the last 20 years of his life teaching voice and singing in San Juan, while also working for the establishment of a music conservatory in that city. He would not see this last dream come true, because he developed cancer and died at age 75.
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.
Mario del Monaco
July 27, 1915 – October 16, 1983
Mr. del Monaco was one of the most widely recorded singers of the 1950’s and 60’s and divided his busy operatic career between Europe and America during those years. Sir Rudolf Bing, then manager of the Metropolitan Opera, heard Mr. del Monaco’s debut as Radames in Verdi’s ”Aida” at the San Francisco Opera in 1950 and asked the tenor to stop in New York for a guest appearance at the Met in Puccini’s ”Manon Lescaut” on his way back to Europe
Mr. del Monaco’s singing made a distinct impression and won him a long and prosperous relationship with the Met beginning the next year. At the New York company from 1951 to 1959, he sang 102 times, in 16 roles. He appeared on the Met’s tour 38 times.
His last performance at the Met was as Canio in Leoncavallo’s ”I Pagliacci” in 1959. But he returned three years later to Carnegie Hall in a concert of arias and duets with Gabriella Tucci. ”He sang for the most part in a style that was close to roaring,” wrote Ross Parmenter of The New York Times on that occasion, ”but in selection after selection the huge, long-sustained notes were obviously what the audience wanted.”
Del Monaco was one of those tenors who could only sing fortissimo.
In a profession often peopled by overweight tenors, Mr. Del Monaco offered a classic profile and dark good looks that made him an attractive presence on stage.
Mr. del Monaco enjoyed a wide reputation as a recording artist, mostly for London Records. One official at London described him as ”our leading tenor before Luciano Pavarotti came along.” His recorded repertory included ”Tosca,” ”Pagliacci,” ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” ”La Gioconda,” ”Andrea Chenier,” ”Il Trovatore,” ”La Fanciulla del West,” ”Mefistofele,” ”Turandot,” ”Manon Lescaut,” ”Otello,” ”Norma,” ”Fedora,” ”Carmen” and ”La Wally.” According to London Records, his opera recordings with the soprano Renata Tebaldi were best sellers.
Mario del Monaco was born in Florence in 1915 and grew up in nearby Pesaro where his father was employed in city government. His parents were both musically inclined and encouraged his singing. Although he had some lessons, he was largely self-taught.
Del Monaco made his professional debut in Puccini’s ”Madama Butterfly” in Milan in 1941. He spent the war years in the Italian Army. After the war, Del Monaco’s career blossomed and spread to Milan’s La Scala and London’s Covent Garden as well as opera houses in Rome, Naples, Barcelona, Lisbon and Stockholm. In 1946, he sang in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, moved northward to Mexico City and then on to San Francisco for his American debut.
Del Monaco retired to his villa near Venice later in 1973.
February 2, 1911 – September 9, 1960
Jussi Björling, byname of Johan Jonaton Björling, (in Siarö, near Stockholm), Swedish tenor, admired for the musicianship of his performances, particularly in the Italian and French repertory.
At the age of six, Björling began singing under the guidance of his father, who then took him and his two brothers on tours in Scandinavia and the United States as a vocal quartet. At 17 he began his studies at the Royal Opera School in Stockholm, where he made his operatic debut in 1930 as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He appeared as guest performer in several opera houses in Europe before achieving a huge success at Covent Garden, London, in 1936. In the following year he gave his premiere performances in the United States, first on the radio, then on stage in Chicago.
In 1938 Björling made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role he repeated in 1940 in San Francisco. He sang with the Metropolitan Opera from 1938 to 1941, and, after spending the war years in Sweden, he returned in 1946 to sing with the Metropolitan company until his death. He continued to perform in Sweden between seasons at the Metropolitan. His popular concerts and prolific recordings won him fame as a recitalist and soloist in symphonic choral works.