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Richard Fawkes, Reviewing in Opera Now, “Screen Gems”

“Bel Canto Society produces a huge amount of often rare footage of singers. Richard Fawkes focuses on their collection of Franco Corelli.

“Those who saw him on stage will tell you that Franco Corelli was not simply the best tenor of his generation but, Caruso notwithstanding, the best of all time. Why, then, isn’t he a name on everyone’s lips in the way that Caruso is, known to those who have never been to an opera or bought an operatic recording? Largely because he had a comparatively limited career due to a stage fright he could never overcome.

“One way for those who never saw Corelli to find out why he was so highly regarded is to burrow through the offerings in the Bel Canto Society catalogue. This is the organisation founded by the indefatigable Stefan Zucker (who features in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest tenor) to make available on video performances of singers, from concerts to feature films, from opera productions to TV appearances. Much of the material predates video recording, so the visual quality is not always all one might wish. But generally speaking Bel Canto’s cleaning up of the sound is exemplary and makes all these tapes worth watching.

“First port of call has to be Corelli’s 1956 appearance in the film Tosca. Corelli was 30 before he made his operatic debut in 1951. It had taken him six years to get a top to his voice. In 1956, the director Carmine Gallone, who has the distinction of having directed more opera films than anyone else, decided to film Tosca on the actual locations in Rome, using actors miming to a prerecorded track. He planned to use Ferruccio Tagliavini to sing Cavaradossi but was having difficulty finding an actor. It was Aldo Relli, who had been cast as Sciarrone, who suggested he consider his younger brother who looked good and could also sing (Relli was the stage name of Ubaldo Corelli). Gallone duly auditioned Corelli and promptly offered him the role both as singer and actor, making him the only singer in the film to be seen on screen. Maria Caniglia sings Tosca (acted by Franca Duval), Giangiacomo Guelfi, Scarpia (played by Afro Poli).

Tosca made Corelli a star. He not only looks the part, his singing picks you up and transports you. His cries of ‘Vittoria! Vittoria!’ make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up, and this is perhaps the key to Corelli’s popularity: he is a very visceral singer with the power to seize the listener’s emotions and not let go. This power can be heard to great effect on a CD of Tosca (also available as a download or Webcast) recorded in Parma in 1967. He really lets fly, holding on to his notes (it may be self-indulgent but it is exciting) and demonstrating quite phenomenal breath control. But he also sings when necessary with subtlety and shading. It is a virtuoso performance well worth acquiring, even though the poor soprano singing Tosca manages to go off-key in ‘Vissi d’Arte’.

“Also on CD is a thrilling account of La Gioconda (also available as a download or Webcast), recorded live in Philadelphia in 1964 with Mary Curtis-Verna in the title role and Mignon Dunn as Laura. As a bonus, the set contains 70 minutes of his second Philadelphia appearance in the role, opposite Tebaldi. The remastering captures all the excitement and brilliance of the live performance, although being recorded at the beginning of winter, the Tebaldi version has more than its share of audience coughs.

“Other Corelli CDs in the catalogue include a strongly cast Rome Opera production of Il trovatore, now also available as a download, recorded live off air in Berlin in 1961 when Corelli was at the peak of his form, a Carmen (available as a download or Webcast) with Freni and Simionato, and an Ernani (available as a download or Webcast).

“On tape again is a 1958 made-for-television film of Turandot (#544) with Lucille Udovick impressive in the title role and Corelli singing with animal excitement, and Corelli in Concert, a 1971 video of arias and Neapolitan songs which is an object lesson in vocal artistry. The audience goes appropriately wild. And yet this tape, perhaps more than any other, goes a long way towards explaining the Corelli enigma. Between arias, between phrases even, he looks decidedly uncomfortable. He licks his lips, his eyes do not communicate warmth or enjoyment, he rarely smiles. It is clear he does not want to be there. It does seem amazing that a man with such enormous talent, who gave so much pleasure to so many people and received such adulation, could not overcome his fear of stepping onto a stage. We can only be thankful we have the evidence of these recordings to remind us of what a truly great artist Franco Corelli was.

“Other Bel Canto titles include:

The Glass Mountain, the 1950 feature film starring Michael Denison as a composer who returns to Italy after the war to find inspiration. The film made an international star of Tito Gobbi who appears as an opera singing partisan. A wonderful, moving film.

Del Monaco at His Most Thrilling! Del Monaco was the tenor for whom the phrase can belto was coined. This 1969 German TV appearance has him dressed casually in a sweater alongside a penguin-suited orchestra in a repertoire that mixes arias from Norma, Macbeth and Die Walküre (what a heldentenor he would have made) with the baritone aria ‘Largo al Factotum’ from Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Ridi, pagliaccio, an absorbing 1942 film about the creation of the Leoncavallo opera which stars Paul Hörbiger as the real-life Canio and Gigli as the singer who created the role.”