Giovanni Martinelli ranks among the greatest tenors of the 20th century, and perhaps came to be the true Caruso-successor after Caruso’s death in 1921. He had a very distinct sound, with a forward placement.

What is quite remarkable in Martinelli is the openness of the sound. It is a beautiful ringing tone with what Italians call “lo squillo”, which means a bell-like tone. I have tried to select recordings where the sound is good enough that you can hear what I mean.

Che gelida manina

Che gelida manina,
se la lasci riscaldar.
Cercar che giova?

Al buio non si trova.

Ma per fortuna
é una notte di luna,
e qui la luna
l’abbiamo vicina.
Aspetti, signorina,
le dirò con due parole
chi son, e che faccio,
come vivo.
Vuole?
Chi son? Sono un poeta.
Che cosa faccio? Scrivo.
E come vivo? Vivo.
In povertà mia lieta
scialo da gran signore
rime ed inni damore.
Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.
Talor dal mio forziere
ruban tutti i gioelli
due ladri, gli occhi belli.
Ventrar con voi pur ora,
ed i miei sogni usati
e i bei sogni miei,
tosto si dileguar!
Ma il furto non maccora,
poiché, poiché v’ha preso stanza
la speranza!
Or che mi conscete,
parlate voi, deh! Parlate. Chi siete?
Vi piaccia dir!

What a frozen little hand,

What a frozen little hand,
let me warm it for you.
What’s the use of looking?

We won’t find it in the dark.

But luckily
it’s a moonlit night,
and the moon
is near us here.
Wait, miss,
I will tell you in two words,
who I am, what I do,
and how I live.
May I?
Who am I? I am a poet.
What do I do? I write.
And how do I live? I live.

In my carefree poverty
I squander rhymes
and love songs like a lord.
When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.
From time to time two thieves
steal all the jewels
out of my safe, two pretty eyes.
They came in with you just now,
and my customary dreams
my lovely dreams,
melted at once into thin air!
But the theft doesn’t anger me,
for their place has been
taken by hope!
Now that you know all about me,
tell me who you are.
Please do!

Se quel guerrier
Io fossi! se il mio sogno
S’avverasse!… Un esercito di prodi
Da me guidato… e la vittoria… e il plauso
Di Menfi tutta! E a te, mia dolce Aida,
Tornar di lauri cinto…
Dirti: per te ho pugnato, per to ho vinto!

Celeste Aida, forma divina.
Mistico serto di luce e fior,
Del mio pensiero tu sei regina,
Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.

Il tuo bel cielo vorrei redarti,
Le dolci brezze del patrio suol;
Un regal serta sul crin posarti,
Ergerti un trono vicino al sol.

Celeste Aida, forma divina,
Mistico raggio di luce e fior, ecc.

If I were
that warrior! If my dreams
were to come true! A valiant army
led by me… and victory… and the acclamations
of all Memphis! And to return to you, my sweet Aida,
crowned with laurels…
to tell you: for you I fought, for you I conquered!

Heavenly Aida, form divine,
mystical garland of light and flowers,
of my thoughts you are the queen,
you are the light of my life.

I would return to you your lovely sky,
the gentle breezes of your native land;
a royal crown on your brow I would set,
build you a throne next to the sun.

Heavenly Aida, form divine,
mystical gleam of light and flowers, etc.

“Amor ti vieta”, from Fedora by Giordano

Amor ti vieta di non amar…
La man tua lieve che mi respinge,
cerca la stretta della mia man:
la tua pupilla esprime: “T’amo”
se il labbro dice: “Non t’amerò!”

Love itself bars you from not loving…
Your light hand that repels me,
still looks for the stroke of my hand:
your eyes exclaim: “I love you”
even when your lips say: “I will not love you!”

This is “O Paradis!” from Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine”. It is sung in Italian, and the English is a translation of the Italian, not the original French.

Mi batte il cor…spettacol divin!
Sognata terra, ecco ti premo alfin!
O Paradiso, dall’ onde uscito,
Fiorente suol, splendido sol,
In voi rapito son!
Tu m’appartieni!
O nuovo mondo,
Alla mia patria, ti posso offrir!
Nostro e questo terreno fecondo,
Che l’Europa puo tutta arrichir!
Spettacolo divin!
In te rapito io son!
O nuovo mondo,
Tu m’appartieni a me!
A me!

My heart throbs…wondrous scene!
At last I embrace you, land that I’ve dreamed of!
O paradise, emerging from the sea,
Lowering earth, brilliant sun,
You entrance me!
You belong to me!
Oh new world,
I can offer you to my homeland!
This fertile earth is ours,
Which can enrich all Europe!
Wondrous scene!
You ravish me!
Oh new world,
You belong to me!
To me!

October 22, 1885 – February 2, 1969

Giovanni Martinelli was born in the Italian village of Montagnana on October 22, 1885. His father was a cabinetmaker.

At the age of 20, he went into the army and found a soft job as a member of a regimental band, escaping a good deal of drilling and other regimental activity. One Saturday evening, he and a friend rigged a French horn through a window and pretended that they were playing a phonograph. Martinelli sang, while the friend played a mandolin accompaniment.

“The next day,” Martinelli later recalled, “the bandmaster, a little man with a rough voice and an army disciplinarian’s glare, demanded to know who had sung the previous evening”.

“I feared that I would be punished for disturbing the peace and hesitated to confess. I learned that a singing teacher of the town had passed by and had been impressed by my voice”.

The teacher gave the young man an audition several days later and told him that he must study.

Eventually, the tenor went to Milan, where a group of managers financed him for a period of study. One of the friends he made in this period was Oresto Poli, manager of the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, who was responsible for Mr. Martinelli’s first operatic role.

His first role was in 1908 as the messenger in Verdi’s Aida, He felt that he needed further study, and his professional debut came in 1910 in Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro dal Verme in Milano on December 3. Martinelli ‘s immediate success led to his appearance as Ernani at the same theatre on December 29.

Martinelli’s famous sunny temperament commended him to friends and colleagues. And it was his temperament that rescued him in the formative stage of his career, from a nearly ruinous encounter with Toscanini.

After singing Ernani, he next came to the attention of Giacomo Puccini. That is the way in which he got to Rome, Toscanini, and the “Girl of the Golden West”. Also it was in Rome that he met Giulio Gatti-Cassaza, manager of La Scala in Milan, who was preparing to depart for American to being his 32-year rule over the Met.

When he began to sing at the first rehearsal, Toscanini glared at him, muttered something, and finally banged the score shut. “It is impossible”, the maestro told the young tenor: “You will not do!”

“Very well,” the 24-year-old from the provinces replied cheerfully to the angry maestro. “At least I can say that I have been to Rome and that I have worked with Toscanini”.

The maestro looked up in surprise. Then he smiled. “Let us try again,” he said. “Perhaps, we can do something.”

Martinelli sang in “The Girl of the Golden West” with success in Rome and was then engaged to sing throughout Europe.

In 1913, Gatti-Cassaza cabled an offer to the young tenor to come to the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Martinelli considered his fortune secure. He married Adele Previtali on August 7, 1913 and then set sail to America.

Thirty-odd years later, a world-famous performer with a repertory of 57 roles, the tenor had thoroughly justified the maestro’s indulgence.

He had made his debut at the Metropolitan on November 20, 1913, when Caruso was in the ascendant. Mr. Martinelli had then a repertory of perhaps seven opera parts – all roles that the incomparable Caruso sang. Many tenors were called to the Met in those years, but no others were chosen to stay. Only Mr. Martinelli survived the days of Caruso’s glory and emerged an artist and personality in his own right.

His first appearance at the Metropolitan was as Rodolfo in “La Boheme, “ to Lucrezia Bori’s Mimì. From the start, the voice of the newcomer was often described by critics as comparable to that of Caruso, with whom he became fast friends.

On the 50th anniversary of his debut – November 23, 1963 – Martinelli was fêted by the Met. The program was devoted to music from operas in which he had sung with the company, and he was presented with a leatherbound, gold stamped album containing programs for each of the 36 roles he had sung for the Met.

Four years later, in February 1967, Martinelli was suddenly pressed into service once more. He was in Seattle to give a lecture when a member of the local opera company’s “Turandot” cast came down with laryngitis.

Donning a false beard and the robe and miter of the Chinese emperor for his first role since 1950, Martinelli received a splendid reception. The audience stood to applaud three times, and the producer prevailed on him to stay over for two more performances.

Assaying his own performance, Martinelli commented, “An artist is supposed to say, ‘No, I am not satisfied’, but I was precise on the tempo.”