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09 Nov 2006
Franco Corelli: The 1971 Tokyo Concert
A friend who bought this issue grumbled that Dynamic had swindled him out off his money as the whitewashed, less than sharp picture quality is not much better than the pirate issue he once received from a correspondent.
He didn’t believe for a moment that Dynamic had used the original Japanese NHK tapes though the sleeve mentions ‘licensed by NHK’. I’m not sure this less than pristine quality is Dynamic’s fault. By the early seventies filming a broadcast (kinescope) was replaced by early video taping. I remember one old pro at my own company (Flemish Public TV) saying that such a video needed to be recopied each year or otherwise it would lose its quality. Of course no TV-station had the money and the people necessary for such an operation and ten years later the results were clearly there for everybody to see or, more exactly, not to see.
I yield to no one in my admiration of Franco Corelli. After all, he clinched my musical future on that day of April the 20th 1958 when, together with Sarah Vaughan and Vico Torriani (a Swiss pop singer), ‘a young promising Italian tenor’ as Flemish Public Radio announced, would end the Opening Concert of the Brussels World Exhibition. I was 14 and liked Lanza and Schmidt; but I was still susceptible enough to listen to popular singers like Vera Lynn, Edith Piaf and especially Freddy Quin (a fine German popular singer). That went all out of the window with Corelli’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’, ‘Una vergin’,’Nessun dorma’ and ‘Granada’ as an encore. That ‘young promising tenor’ already proved to have the most exciting tenor sound of the last fifty years. That doesn’t mean I'm blind or deaf. Corelli often attacked a high note from below; he was not always a paragon of style; and, during his later years, the conductor had two choices: either indulging the tenor in everything (as does Alberto Ventura on this tape) or lay down his baton.
The Corelli voice evolved a lot during his twenty years at the top. The pronounced vibrato disappeared completely by the second decade of his career. When he disappeared after his Verona performances in 1975 to emerge only for two last Bohèmes one year later, there was (and there still is) talk of a singer who couldn’t stand the heat any more, whose nerves had melted down and who disappeared at the height of his career. This is simply not true. Loretta Di Lelio recorded every performance of her husband and Corelli clearly knew that his voice was going down the drain. There were still some good days (my Verona Carmen in August 1975 was one) but the bad days were far more numerous. There seem to be two important dates. In 1969 he stopped singing for six months altogether due to the Metropolitan strike and I wonder if he kept up his daily exercises. In his live recordings dating from the end of 1969 there are some dry patches. But the real watershed came three years later. His Werthers of 1971 still give us a lot of Franco Corelli of yore. The live recordings of 1972 give us a voice in difficulties: the big sound is still there but the tenor sings in short guffaws of explosive sound and there is no longer beauty on the voice which has dried out remarkably.
This is quite an introduction to discuss the well-known Tokyo concert of 1971; recorded (lucky for us) during the last months of his better though not of his great days. By that time he had a lot of experience in resting his voice: at the Met he often lipped instead of singing during ensembles. In a concert like this Tokyo one he prefers very short arias like ‘Questa o quella’ or ‘Ch’ella mi creda’; he cuts the recitative to ‘Un di all’azurro’ and his four encores of famous Neapolitan songs are extremely shortened versions. Though he is in excellent voice, he cuts notes short and makes grating noises in his lower register due to his lowered larynx technique. ‘Che gelida manina’ is transposed one full tone and ‘O Paradiso’ needs an extra breath here and there. On the other hand, there is still the incomparable power of the voice. The sheen is still there. He is at his best in the Chénier piece and he makes some magnificent noises in some of the Italian songs. The well-known nervousness is there too and it lasts some arias before he relaxes and smiles. Remarkable is his use of ‘stolen breath’ or ‘fiato rubato’. For someone with a shattering volume, Corelli almost imperceptibly catches his breath. Apart from the tremendous live Forza of 1958 there are almost no live recordings of the great tenor (most are synchronized ones) and therefore this is still an important issue.