My Desert Island Disc   

When in October 2003 we were deprived of ‘The last of the Mohicans’ in the operatic tenor field I started to play some of his commercial recital recordings as a personal tribute and began to look for what was in my opinion his best solo recording. Obviously  a very tough task for anyone taken by Corelli’s art, and also for myself who considers Corelli as one of the ten best tenors in operatic history. Surprisingly perhaps -to Corelli fans at least- I didn’t end up with a recording of an aria from one of his glamour roles. But, in fact, I ended up with what is nowadays a rather obscure aria from a neglected and forgotten opera.


I have picked Corelli’s rendition of the aria ‘Se Franz dicesse… Ah! Retrovarla` from Mascagni’s Lodoletta. In the third act of the opera, the painter Flammen reflects upon Franz’s words, but can’t find comfort in them. If only he could return and find Lodoletta once more, he would never again desert her.
Admittedly the aria is a `tear jerker` but it is `one of a kind` and it is sad to see this enjoyable work so stubbornly ignored nowadays by opera ‘directors’ even in Italy. Only a handful of tenors recorded this beautiful lament, but not one of them surpasses Corelli. This recording, one of his solo recordings for Cetra, dates from the 1956 releases and it is for me the finest of this set of recordings as the voice is at its supreme best and he is so much in his element.
The voice shines with youthful brilliance, the vibrato is under control, the text enunciation is better than ever, and he really “lives” this music” especially  considering the fact that many people over the years felt that so often he only “sang” the notes. Here one can find him totally involved, and moreover  he is also musically on his best behaviour.  Listen how he phrases the lines ‘Lodoletta ? fuggita, volata via!’ and how much emotion he puts into them. No crossing the line here. Listen to the stylish mezza voce on ‘e i prati senza fiori’ again without hanging on to it like he so often did in his later years. And nobody, not even Gigli, introduces the line ‘Ah Ritrovarla ancora’ with such morbidezza and deeply-felt vocalism. The same goes for the emotional outburst at the end, all within limits and good taste.
In comparison I listened to 5 other versions (Cura-Gigli-Lo Giudice-Campora-Masini) and Corelli remains unsurpassed in spite of this tough competition. It is perhaps strange, but this Mascagni piece seems to bring out the best in its interpreters. Beniamino Gigli  (1890-1957), who sang the role of Flammen ‘magnificently’ (according to the composer himself) on several occasions, recorded the aria about a year after its creation and comes very close in beating Corelli.  1918 finds Gigli in his prime and also at his musical best, even avoiding the nevertheless ‘scritti’ ‘singhiozzi’ at the end, which Corelli does not. (click here to listen to Gigli)
Galliano Masini (1896-1986) who sang the role at La Scala and in Rome recorded the aria in 1932 and also offers his very best and avoids the urge to sob. He phrases well and he sings with no apparent effort. Indeed Masini is a tenor of sterling merit, yet he sounds less involved than Corelli, and the voice, albeit of excellent worth, is not of Corelli-calibre. The same applies to Franco Lo Giudice in 1923, who sings absolutely fine, and who has a voice of considerable merit, though in his case not of Masini’s quality. (click here to listen to Masini)
Giuseppe Campora (1923-2004) - speaking of another underrated tenor- sang the role in the fifties and on his recording of the aria brings the best out of his qualities. He and Corelli are the only ones, by the way, who deliver the ‘singhiozzi’. But neither Campora nor José Cura are in any way significant competitors to Corelli. Cura’s “Verismo” record is also for him the best CD he recorded up until now. He accompanies himself stylishly, but some phrases are chopped off too quickly. Whereas Corelli burns with emotion, Cura sounds a bit too throaty for my taste.

Click here to listen to Campora's version

I think that it is only fair that I also talk about some of the recordings that were also under consideration but did not make it to the top slot :

CATALANI  Loreley :“Nel verde maggio

Thanks to the in 2003 issued ‘Unknown recordings’ CD, this rare Corelli piece finally became available to more people than the Stefan Zucker radio show crowd. And rightly so, as we find him here in the same artistic space as in the afore mentioned Lodoletta piece. This manner of music could not find a better interpreter than in our Ancona-born tenor. So why you might ask didn’t it end up as my desert island disc?
It may be a matter of ‘de gestibus’ only. It may originate in the fact that often the first recording of a piece we hear remains a standard by which we judge the others. Although the suave Gigli made a wonderful recording of it, the touchstone recording of this piece belongs to Corelli’s great rival Mario Del Monaco. Del Monaco (1915-1982) recorded the piece in 1954 –during his prime years – and rarely has the voice sounded this beautiful. A magical record. A notch above Corelli.

Listen to Corelli's version here and listen to Del Monaco's version here


GIORDANO : Fedora `Vedi io piango`

I may sound repetitive, but no one has sang this music like Corelli! Del Monaco is extremely moving in the Decca recording, but it came a bit too late in his career. Not too many tenors recorded this ‘solo’ piece from Giordano’s opera; therefore, Corelli wins, almost by default. The reason it is not my desert island disc after all  is simply because the Lodoletta solo is much better music in my opinion.


Here are the commercial versions of some arias for which we have also access to excellent live versions:
Jan Neckers in his informative and utterly enjoyable article on the ten best ‘Nessun dormas’  has a preference for Corelli. I couldn’t agree more. Yet we all know Corelli was often so much more in his element during live performances, and this “desert island” disc discussion is about commercial recordings only.
Same rule applies to Chenier’s ‘Improviso’. In their primes both Corelli and Del Monaco were ideal incarnations of the French poet. For about a decade Corelli was the ruling poet at the Metropolitan opera and appeared in numerous performances of the role elsewhere. Corelli’s commercial versions under Basile and Santini don’t have the same tension of his live versions. Del Monaco’s clarion tenor hero wins with a notch over Corelli. It has what the late Ken Harris rightly called `a proper, slightly hysterical, tense quality with a greater sense of maturity and physical strength to the role of Chenier than Corelli offers`. Del Monaco is also rhythmically more alert than his rival and he doesn’t stretch some phrases as much as does Corelli.
Also in the Adriana, La Forza del Destino and Les Huguenots solos Corelli impresses more in his live incarnations than in the commercial counterparts. However, it must be said that his recording of Raoul’s ‘Bianca al par’ remains unparalleled in recorded operatic history. Perhaps this should be my one Corelli desert island disc after all. Let’s move further before I change my mind.

 PUCCINI La Fanciulla del West 'Or son sei mesi'

While I was writing this article I had a discussion with a friend about my choices. She –indeed a female! - firmly stated that in her opinion Corelli’s version -listen here -was the ultimate recording of this tough piece. Yet, after a close re-listening I’m of the conclusion that certainly Mario Del Monaco’s version -listen here -is of equal quality. Both shared the role at La Scala and remain unsurpassed as Dick Johnson (sic).
It may all boil down to what kind of a timbre you prefer for the role. Vasco Campagnano (more than decent), Joao Gibin (disappointing), Domingo (regrettably strained on top), Corneliu Murgu (provincial) and Dennis O’Neill (third class) don’t dethrone our two tenors.
Closer competition though comes from two pre-war Spanish stalwarts : Antonio Cortis (1891-1952) and Hipolito Lazaro(1889-1974). Cortis’s beautiful tenor has no vocal difficulties with the tessitura, but he drags the tempo and chops the musical line. Lazaro is musically more scrupulous with the line, but whines a bit too much. Bernardo De Muro 1881-1955)has the right voice but not the beauty of timbre both Corelli and Del Monaco had in their prime years.


Though I admit I’m an easy target for these kind of light pieces, except for a small handful, I honestly don’t care that much for Corelli’s outings in the non-operatic field, at least not in his commercial endeavours. His “Granada” falls below the versions of Mario Lanza and even Wunderlich. “Ti voglio tanto bene” has too many sobs and portamenti and the orchestral accompaniment is plainly dreadful.
Pedrazolli may praise heaven that Corelli chose to record his atrocious “Il canto della rinuncia”. In fact it is only Corelli’s brilliant singing which makes this song bearable at all. Same applies to Mingardo’s “Carretiere”. Much better is Ferrafo’s “Tu lo sai” also because the song is of better quality, yet Corelli’s Latin fire and passionate vocalism make this a wonderful recording.
Has his French ever been better than in Ciarone’s “Pourqoui fermer ton Coeur”? I doubt it, and he also sings the song most beautifully with the right doses of mezza voce and squillo. The Neapolitan songs have all their merits but, “desert island” discs for me they will never be.
The live renditions of the popular repertoire again show Corelli at his best. Ferenc Lehar’s music profits so much when sung by real tenors. Post-war star tenors wishing to record his music were far less numerous than in the composer’s heyday. So when tenor stars such as Del Monaco, Wunderlich and Konya sing his music, one easily realizes and appreciates how really good Lehar’s music is.
Corelli sang the aria from Rose von Stambul for a RAI transmission on operetta and it is plain magic. Di Stefano in his rendition of ‘Munastera Santa Chiara” had always been my favorite version until I heard Corelli’s rendition of the song on a tape of a 1966 Ed Sullivan Show. The feeling and heart-felt emotion he puts in the song is rare among his popular renditions. 
This applies even more so to Bellini’s ‘Sogno d’infanzia’. Corelli started to include this song in his concerts towards the end of his career. It is as if he felt the ‘final curtain call’ was nearing, and the nostalgic, melancholic touch of the song is vocally brilliantly transmitted.
Hearing him sing this song is even more touching and painful when you realize that his last wish was to be transferred from his Milan hospital to his ancestral home city Ancona where he first breathed the fresh air off the Adriatic coast, just a short distance from his home. This wish was never to be realized.

Rudi van den Bulck, 2003