An ardent lesson
After having been expelled from class at the Pesaro Conservatory, because he couldn’t attend lessons due to the fact that he had to attend classes in the Bologna University, where he studied to become a surveyor, Franco went looking for formal training closer to home. Because of his daytime obligations, he ended up with a renowned soprano in Ancona, who, then post career, gave private lessons: Rinalda Pavoni. When this failed to have the required result, Franco turned to his friend, the baritone Carlo Scaravelli, who had previously urged him to attend the Conservatory. Scaravelli suggested Franco to consult his own current teacher at the Pesaro Conservatory: Arturo Melocchi.
ON VOCAL CHORDS OF STEEL
Allegedly, Melocchi ended more careers than he started, because his lowered larynx technique took a heavy toll on vocal chords that weren’t forged in Walhal. However, once he found a singer that could forge his voice like iron on an anvil, the result was spectacular, or so proved Mario Del Monaco. Few would believe it today, but Del Monaco actually started out in the lyric vein, singing Rodolfo, Pinkerton and the like (of the latter two roles, recordings exist either in complete performance, or excerpts.)*1 After Del Monaco started consulting Melocchi, his voice expanded in a spectacular way, propelling him to becoming the greatest post war Otello after, perhaps, the dark hued Ramon Vinay.
Download*3 the complete part of Mario Del Monaco as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly here
Download*3 the complete part of Mario Del Monaco as Rodolfo in La bohème here
The student teacher
Corelli was as much impressed by Del Monaco’s early recordings as with the tremendous progress made by his baritone friend. He agreed to meet Melocchi, and proved receptive for his advice, although his obligations at home sill prevented him from taking formal classes with Melocchi in Pesaro. However, Scaravelli suggested a solution: everyday when he would come back from Melocchi in Pesaro, he would pass Melocchi’s lessons on to Franco. This went on for over a year, and until recently, it was being regarded as one of those things taken for granted in the biography of any given singer: so he studied with this or that teacher – so what, one would say? You study and then you move on, to devlop you own style, find your own way... Franco himself later tuned down melocchi's importance on his development by saying that he never met Melocchi more than a few times in person. In addition he claimed to have adjusted Melocchi’s lowered larynx technique into a floating larynx technique, to subdue his vibrato and to enable him to sing pianissimo, messa di voce, and the whole scala of bel canto effects that were available to great pre war singers like Caruso, Pertile, Lauri-Volpi, and Gigli, to mention but the most immediate examples.
A record of singing
While there is no doubt that Franco used Melocchi’s lowered larynx technique, it is also obvious that he studied his roles foremost by singing along with the recordings of the mentioned tenor legends of the pre awar generation. In some cases, you can almost make a stereo recording of the examples and Franco’s later renditions, such as with Fleta’s diminuendo on ‘Discoglieia dai veli’ in Tosca. The part of Raul in Gli Ugonotti was tailored to Lauri-Volpi, Don José in Carmen and Manrico in Il trovatore were learned from Pertile, while his French style came from... Caruso! Which, for the moment, leaves us with one of his most famous roles, Calaf, which wasn’t yet all that popular at the time. By 1958, the only complete recording was with a miscast Eugenio Fernandi in the EMI Callas set of 1954, and an impressive rival set on Decca, with Mario Del Monaco and Inge Borkh (mono, but reissued in fake stereo in 1959, which caused the problems with dating this set today in the labyrinth of online reatail stores – they usually give it as 1959). Possibly, Franco had heard the aged Lauri-Volpi sing the part in 1957, which might have given him the clues for his bite in the part onwards. It wasn’t until a few yeas ago, however, that Franco’s Calaf fell into place in my mind, when a privately recorded voice lesson of Gastone Limarilli with his teacher Arturo Melocchi popped up.*2 Among other things, teacher and pupil went into Puccini’s Turandot.
When I studied this tape for my lecture at the Recorded Vocal Arts Society in London, on April 10, 2012, I was struck by what I heard. I had previously discussed Melocchi with Robleto Merolla, Melocchi’s last pupil, and a famous Pollione in his own right. Merolla gave me photos and letters of Melocchi, who, in his final years looked fragile, vulnerable and wise, while being clouded in a mysterious halo. Since the meeting with Merolla was filmed, I gladly provide the video here, which starts and ends with Merolla singing:
I was so intrigued by Merolla’s stories, that I went on to visit Melocchi’s grave in Pesaro, which was an emotional experience in itself.
There lay the man who had propelled the post war dramatic tenor breed to new heights, all by himself. Or not? Hmmm... it has been argued that the likes of Pertile and Merli, who clearly sang with 'Melocchi's' technique, were formed before Melocchi emerged. Indeed, general records have Melocchi establishing himself in Pesaro from 1947 onwards only, while Merli's famous Calaf was recorded in 1939. However, the Pesaro conservatory records mention Melocchi having visited there briefly in 1941, but states that his explicit anti fascist feelings prevented him from being granted a post there until after the war. In addition, the book mentions that Mario Del Monaco privately consulted Melocchi as early as 1935, which is four years before Merli's famous Calaf recording. In addition, one should know that there is also a decided difference between the lighter weight early Meonerli recordings, and the later s, such as the integral Turandot and, for instance, the 1939 Otello 'Esultate'. This is not to say that Merli had it from Melocchi. Question is: where did Melocchi learn his trade?
According to legend, he had learned his technique in China or the far east. According to Merolla, Melocchi indeed had traveled there, although it is doubtful whether he actually learned his trade there, instead of merely teaching it. After all, what Melocchi was propagating was merely the school that had passed on through time from Domenico Donzelli, Bellini's Pollione, and the arch father of the baritenor. In the except below, filmed a day before the previous interview, Merolla demonstrates the Melocchi technique:
You can here this school in early recordings by late 19th Century singers, such as the Italian Wagner propagator Giuseppe Borgatti, and even more so in Fiorello Giraud. Lauri-Volpi, in his book Voci Paralelle, linked Corelli's voice to Rinaldo Grassi's, but Grassi had in fact very little in common with Corelli. If any 19th Century singer could be linked to Corelli, it was Fiorello Giraud, who not only sang in the same manner, but who also had a very similar timbre, as had, for instance, René Maison, a Met favorite in the 1930s and 40s.
So, although Melocchi may not be solely responsible for the emergence of the dramatic tenor breed as such, there is only one answer to the question why that abundantly cherished, dramatic tenor breed petered out in the 1970s? This happened because Melocchi, the last teacher who mastered this technique, died in 1960. Which allegedly caused a desperate Mario Del Monaco to turn to Corelli for advice, when he found himself in vocal trouble in December 1962, with nowhere left to go. Upon which Corelli explained Del Monaco that there was only one man alive that could help him: Carlo Scaravelli, who had passed Melocchi’s lessons on to Franco (a detailed analysis of this subject can be found in Prince of Tenors).
So much for Melocchi, who, for over half a Century, remained both a legend and an enigma, until, one fine day, that tape of his voice lesson to Gastone Limarilli emerged. Suddenly, the legend rose from his grave, and... he wasn’t just talking on that tape! No: he sang! And how... Melocchi’s falsetto singing in those passages of Calaf that matter, is breathtaking. His sense of musical union, structure, line, dramatic phrasing and projection are stunning. They serve to show why they once called such people ‘Maestri’. Then Limarilli, who was of course fine tenor, which is attested by a number of pretty exciting live recordings. Nonetheless, Melocchi’s teaching amply demonstrate what is the difference between a being a household name in the 1960s and being a superstar. The ins and outs of this tape will be fully discussed in Franco Corelli | The Legacy, but here I will pay homage to Melocchi as the man who, directly or indirectly, forged the voice of Franco Corelli as we know it today. All it takes is an analysis of Melocchi’s conception of Calaf’s famous phrases in Act II, after Turandot begs her father not to marry her off to the winner of the riddles: ‘No no principesssa altero, ti voglio ardente d’amor!’, which I here present in an exerpt of the 1958 RAI television movie, as beautifully conserved in the Hardy Classics DVD:
Looking at the score, one might get the idea that Puccini wrote two options there, a low passage for those tenors who could not sing the optional high C on Ardènte (they sing ‘Ti voglio TUTTO ardente d’amor), and one for those who could. And so, apart from Corelli, all great tenors of his day, bar two, habitually took the lower option: Del Monaco and Eugenio Fernandi in 1954, Di Stefano in 1958 and 1961, Domingo in 1970 and 1987, Bergonzi in 1976, Carreras in 1981. The exceptions are Pavarotti in 1977, and the now largely forgotten Franco Bonisolli in the 1980s.
The lower option
Del Monaco, a baritonal, dramatic tenor (instead of a heroic tenor), sang Calaf live only in the late 1940’s, and nothing remains of his portrayal except for the complete 1954 Decca studio recording and a few ‘Nessun dormas’ (the alleged 1949 Callas-Del Monaco performance of a small excerpt is a forgery). Even in the studio, he shuns the High C:
Honesty abides to say that, at the time, Del Monaco probably didn't have a clear example of what that section could sound like, since we do not know how role creators like Fleta in the World Premiere, or Tauber in the German premiere sang it. All Del Monaco had to go bye in decca's attempt to put a rival set to the upcoming Calls-Fernandi set on EMI, was presumably Francesco Merli's 1939 studio recording, which is clearly the one upon which Del Monaco based himself:
Admittedly, Del Monaco might have consulted Lauri-Volpi, whose rendering likewise escaped posterity. In addition, he surely consulted Melocchi, but those lessons have not been passed on to us (although Melocchi's insights into the part are decidedly different withrespect to the 'Ardente' phrase, as will be demonstrated onwards). So, what then about Eugenio Fernandi, in the rival EMI-Callas set? Well... he did feel obliged to obey the score, but when the result reached Del Monaco, he must have laughed at the silly attempt to splice in a High C on 'Ardènte', that was so clumsily glued in, that it became a parody of what the tenor/conductor may have hoped to achieve with it:
Regardless, Fernandi sort of 'raised the stakes', and when Corelli finally recorded his first Turandot for the RAI black & white television movie, he felt obliged to sing that note as he felt it should be sung. That recording preceded Di Stefano's La Scala debut in the role by months, and I actually don't know if Pippo had already heard Corelli's way of dealing with Puccini's \optional notes'. Therefore, it seems more likely that Fernandi was his true inspiration in going for gold at the La Scala opening night of 1958... Pippo’s voice was in place, and, as Nilsson attested in an interview with me, his voice was also much larger than people believe today. He actually sounds like he's going to go for it in 'Ardènte', until you can hear him change his mind in the middle of 'ti voglio'... Suddenly he holds back, passes over the phrase, sliding back to a lower key, after which he tries to make the best of the remaining seconds. Here then Pippo, live at La Scala in 1958:
After that night, Corelli was asked to take over, and one should think that Di Stefano would have had his fill. But no! In 1961, he took another hit at it in Vienna! There. his gorgeous timbre proved still very much intact, but a slight frog from nerves creaps in his throat while going on to 'altera', after which he sings a stylish version of the lower option:
Download*3 the complete 1958 Turandot with Giuseppe Di Stefano here
Download*3 the complete 1961 Turandot with Giuseppe Di Stefano here
Björling then? A heavenly tenor, but not renowned Calaf. He only sang it in the studio, and took the habitual lower option. Surely, he could have pulled it off in, and even out of the recording studio, but it could be that he simply wasn't aware of what was going on in Italy. They didn't have internet at the time, RAI movies didn't habitually make it to Sweden or New York, and while Corelli was the hot potato in Milan then, he was also still two years pre his sensational 1961 Met debut:
That leaves a big gap, since as off the RAI movie of 1958, it was Corelli who both popularized and practically monopolized the role, until his final Calaf in Verona, 1975, where he still had his high c in place:
After him, a whole new generation tenors, better known today as The Three Tenors, tried their luck with Calaf. Plácido Domingo was the first to hit it off with Calaf, live in 1970. There was of course no question about the route he owuld take in this section:
In his 1978 studio recording, Katia Ricciarelli may have insired him to attempt something that sounded almost like a high C, but in reality it was a faked attempt. He achieved the effect by singing it an octave lower and then speeding things up to the required pitch with pitch control on the tape recorder, after whcih the note was spliced in most awkwardly, causing a rough glitch-break at the tape insertion:
Of course, we all know just why and by whom felt pressed to resort to this method in order to pretend the High C on 'ardente'... Perhaps, today, it would even have been possible for him to have that High C spliced in over the auditorium loudspeakers, but that was not yet an option in in 1987, when he once again sang his otherwise intelligent and burnished Calaf live on stage:
Carlo Bergonzi, the stylist, might have sung that High C in a di grazie manner, as he once planned to do with Otello. That was of course long after Pavarotti had demonstrated that you could indeed sing Otello by just singing the notes. I don’t remember if Pav did so with a microphone, or if he and Sir Georg Solti did it all by themselves and just the acoustics of the hall (I would be surprised), but surely, no one had such wild ideas about roles in 1976. At that point in time, the delicately timbred stylist Carlo Bergonzi was still very much aware of the limitations of himself, when he performed:
With a recording date in 1981, José Carreras is the last in the line when it comes to the Calafs of Franco’s times, even if their careers overlapped only in the very last part of Franco’s reign. His poignant, imbued Calaf is much like Di Stefano’s Calaf, perhaps even a shade more solid in terms of vocal reliability, although Di Stefano faced a bigger challenge in front of late 1950’s audiences, than Carreras at a time when the tourist part of the audience at the Salzburg hardly had a clue what they where attending:
So as not to dissapoint the fans of these great singers, I must add here that the intention is not to be diminuative about their voices or their achievements. On the contrary, these were all significant, beautiful, and in their best roles very spectacular voices. Calaf, however, was Franco’s role. And you’d wish for all these great singers to nail those High C’s in Turandot like Franco did. You can discuss opera from many different perspectives. Some topics are on the slippery slope, like ‘interpretation’. But when it comes to opera as an Olympic Game, you have to nail precisely those handful of notes that no one else can nail.
As mentioned, Pav did it, although it's audibly a challenge that he takes in a way that is far far away from the heroism it requires:
Then Bonisolli – he could nail those notes with apparant ease! Unfortunately... he lacked that expensive, immediately recognizable timbre of the triumvirate of competitors mentioned above. Which is why he is hardly remembered today, to which one should add the sad fact that his difficult character limited his career. Post death, he stands at the sideline as a somewhat underrated tenor:
For Bonisolli, as for Franco, this High C was never really ‘an option’. Their Calafs lived from that single note in which all culminated, whereas for Franco is was probably never an option to begin with. This can be learned from Melocchi’s lesson to Limarilli, where the Maestro seems to explain as much as that Puccini wrote that alternative line only for the rehearsals, while you should never take it that way in the theatre. Says Melocchi, singing: “In the theatre, you do like this...’:
Next we hear Melocchi explaining to Limarilli how to project his voice into that cataclistic High C, and then how to boost the effect by projecting the sustained line in a spectacular way. After a minute or two, Melocchi sees that he has reached the limits of his pupil for that moment, after which I have spliced in Corelli’s rendition from a little know live recording of the same year that the lesson is from,1960. Suddenly, Franco seems to be standing there with Melocchi, and when heard in line with Melocchi’s teachings, it is cristal clear on what anvil Corelli's Calaf was forged:
Download*3 the complete voice lesson of Melocchi to Limarilli in high quality mp3 here (you can listen for free to parts in low quality on YouTube)
*1. This brings about an altogether interesting aspect of the ongoing discussion concerning ‘the right style’ in operatic singing of sorts, be it in voice type characterizations, or in such a tricky affair as the right style in, say, French opera. I dare say that ‘the right style’ is nothing more or less then what you like, since there is not such a thing as a Meistersinger rule for all times. This subject will be explored in more detail in the chapter 'Franco Corelli, a French stylist.'
**2. There has been discussion with respect to the authenticity of the integral Melocchi lesson. It has been argued, that on a few places, a line or two of Del Monaco has been spliced in to fill out some gaps in the tape. I fail to understand in what way that would diminish the effect of hearing Melocchi – it is Melocchi for sure – teaching his insights to a pupil, regardless which pupil. Even so, this is clearly Limarilli. For all their value, and for the significant enrichment that they brought to all music lovers, the internet and YouTube also bring about endless discussions that are of little use, if not downright silly, or worse, confusing and untrue.
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