FRANCO CORELLI, Prince of Tenors
René Seghers

Amadeus Press (2008)

This book is simply a must for every collector of singing and singers. Nonetheless this reviewer has to admit a vested interest. His name is in the acknowledgment pages and the author often contacted him for information. Still it is the author’s responsibility to follow some leads or not. Therefore let’s first start with some small warts. The one ‘flaw’ in the book is of course Corelli’s career during his Italian years. Mind you, the reader still gets a good and complete idea of what and where Corelli sang and Seghers did try to search extensively the archives in some important Italian theatres. In Rome he succeeded but in several other places he got himself a lot of frustration, clashes with bureaucratic dinosaurs who enjoy making things difficult for researchers, rage at destruction of important files or possible refusals to hand over documents to a “straniero”, invoking some mysterious privacy from long dead people. (1) But this means that we know somewhat less of the rise of “the Sputnik Tenor” than we’d like to know. Seghers doesn’t omit an Italian  performance but the moment Corelli arrives at the Met we get to know more details about the roles he refused, how relations were with his fellow-artists and management. During his Italian years he surely got interesting offers we don’t know about, probably asked for roles he didn’t get, was hated and slandered for his meteoric rise. In short the wheeling and dealing in the cutthroat world of opera houses in Italy during the fifties is a bit lacking. So there is still some room for ‘un vero Italiano’ to do for Corelli what Petsakis did for young Callas, though it may be possible it  will be somewhat of a suicide mission.

In a big book like this one, inevitably some small mistakes, inconsistencies or loose threads make their appearance. Seghers quotes a letter from Bauer, the Met’s European representative, who tells general manager Bing a few managerial sharks take 66% of Corelli’s earnings. This is difficult to believe but the author doesn’t refute or acknowledge this remark. Seghers sometimes has a tendency to introduce people without telling who or what they are like a certain Ziino (who some pages further turns out to be a conductor) and a Domingo (not Placido) who isn’t  in the index though the captions from a later photo tell us it was a photographer. On p. 22 we learn that soldier Corelli sings “again and again” the Adddio alla madre for his companions. Six pages later we read that Ch’ella mi creda is the only aria the aspiring singer knows. On page 100 “both Bauer and Bing had disliked the tenor at this 1952 audition”; yet three pages further “Bing felt he had to judge himself” and it becomes clear Bing wasn’t at the 1952 audition. A photo shows us Corelli vacationing in “Bressanone”, part of the Austrian Tyrol odiously annexed by Italy in 1918. Of course the real name of the place is Brixen. A “certain Count Rasponi” makes his entrance on p. 220 and it is strange Seghers doesn’t tell us this is the publicity agent and well-known writer on opera Lanfranco Rasponi. And as a former Flemish Radio and TV producer I ‘m sure that Frans Meesters never recorded for Flemish Radio. He simply recorded the Brussels 1958 Corelli Concert on his own tape recorder from Flemish Radio.

The importance of the book lies in the wealth of new information almost everybody will get. Most of us thought Corelli was a very reclusive man who didn’t even want people to know his correct birth date, date of marriage etc. Seghers convincingly proves the Corellis during their American days enjoyed muddling the waters. In his early days the tenor was not shy on personal matters in Italian magazines but as there was no internet, as Italian weeklies were often only available in Italy itself  most of us had to rely on a few tantalizing short references in Anglo-Saxon publications. Seghers has done an admirable job in recreating young Corelli’s life thanks to intense contacts with his family and even with Mrs. Corelli herself. We meet the tenor’s extended family which had quite a love for good singing. Indeed his grandfather was a tenor; his brother Ubaldo became a professional baritone. We follow Corelli at school and in the army during the second world war. And we recognize in him the eternal bambino, so numerous in Italy, often spoiled rotten by la mamma and le sorelle. Corelli’s wife Loretta has been known to say that Corelli never outgrew his adolescent years (still better than Pavarotti who according to his former wife emotionally never grew older than a three and a half year old). Sister Liliana had to put the 30 years old bachelor into a train for the voice competition that started his career as he himself didn’t move. Seghers too resolves all questions concerning his meeting with his later wife, three years older and probably not a ‘virgen intacta’ (Seghers has heard rumours she had an affair with Gobbi; which may well be true as in his memoirs the baritone doesn’t mention Corelli’s name in a famous Lisbon performance incident). At last the true date of their marriage is revealed and the somewhat bizarre circumstances around it too.

Seghers sails full strength the moment he can extensively use the well kept Met archives and is able to speak with prominent singers like Nilsson who are fluent in English. Nevertheless and with the help of a good translator he very effectively mines all kinds of Italian magazines and singers’ memoirs as well. He surprises us with some unexpected discoveries. Did you know Corelli was the hero in two photo novels, so popular at the end of the fifties ? The author unearthed a full colour movie (not Tosca) with Corelli singing two arias. One can hardly wait to see it.. And he is especially strong on Corelli’s records. I doubt there still is a recording of a single note to be found anywhere that the author didn’t discover. Here too there will be some agreeable surprises when one learns that X and Y was recorded too. A small criticism may be Seghers’s regret Corelli didn’t record more complete operas on Cetra though this isn’t the label’s fault. The firm was a subsidiary of RAI and thus mostly brought out recordings of their weekly opera performances. Maybe further research will reveal why Corelli who was the hero of several TV-performances, actually never sang complete radio performances. The moment Corelli switches to EMI (and later RCA and Decca) Seghers gives us mouth-watering details on the tenor’s recordings and especially on failed projects. Though he is an admirer of the tenor, he is always fair. The big Callas-Corelli duet record never materialized due to Corelli’s and not Callas’ prima donna behaviour. All that is left is that one Aida duet. Seghers makes it clear that in the recording studio as well as in the opera house the tenor’s success led him more and more into wilful capriciousness and eccentric behaviour.  I for one would have liked to know more about Corelli’s “dazzingly” amount of record sales. The author tells of a sudden fall in sales so that EMI was no longer interested in recording the tenor in the second half of the sixties. That may be so, but Seghers has ugly stories as well on EMI producers more than fed up with Corelli always singing at full throttle, on Loretta trying to tell everybody how to do their job while recording her husband, on Corelli himself often demanding to record his part in duets and ensembles alone, leaving it to the recording team to splice his contributions in later on. Even the most sympathetic producer would lose his patience with such a star. Maybe one should not underestimate too the importance of tape recorders in the big US market where from Corelli’s début on most collectors could tape his radio performances and thus were not interested anymore in an EMI-Aida.

Throughout the book Seghers, while telling us he is concentrating on Corelli’s life and not on his art, nevertheless gives an exemplary insight into the tenor’s voice, its technique and evolution. Here too, he is scrupulously fair. Indeed he sometimes is more severe than necessary. Corelli’s first recordings of songs in 1955 (Lolita, Canciona moresca, Granada, Pecchè ?) reveal in my opinion already a giant of a tenor and do not fully earn the author’s wrath. Seghers thinks Schipa somewhat better than Corelli in Canzoni but I doubt most fans will agree with that judgment and we all still regret there was not a third or a fourth album. And what a loss Corelli never made the albums with love songs in the best Mario Lanza tradition. Only at the end of Corelli’s career Seghers writes a bit too positive on the tenor’s voice. I personally think the slow (and after 1973 quick) decline can be heard somewhat sooner than the author but he correctly tackles the drying of the timbre and the loss of breath.
The last years of Corelli’s career do not make for joyful reading. The tenor probably knew his time had run out and often he created  incidents: witness the brawl with conductor Cillario told in detail or the sloppiness with which he started to perform. One is surprised too at some of the stinginess of Corelli, refusing to pay a $100 bill for dentistry. And then there are the problems with Loretta which resulted in a temporary separation and possible affairs with Tebaldi (somewhat unlikely) and “Desdemona” (more likely) as Seghers calls her (it is easy to see through that pseudonym as it refers to Corelli’s first ‘recording’ of the duet). Corelli ended his career at the Met in the spring of 1975. He was announced for 6 Polliones and indeed he made a short appearance at a rehearsal with British soprano Rita Hunter.

Anyway Seghers does his readers quite a pleasure by not stopping his story with Corelli’s last two performances in 1976. He follows the former tenor till his last moments. And the last chapters make for honest but very painful reading. In a note, which in my opinion ought to have been in the main text, Giulietta Simionato tells us Corelli didn’t even recognize her anymore in 2001. Dementia was Corelli’s fate and he didn’t get the care he could easily afford as maybe Loretta didn’t want to pay for the best hospitals. There is a photograph of Corelli in his last months which is heartbreaking and will haunt many a reader for days . Loretta inherited the whole fortune and it seems that she has mellowed a bit now she is in a wheelchair and completely despondent upon others. It seems too she realizes that Corelli’s inheritance is too important to have it thrown away or burned after her own death and she has allowed some relatives to listen to the many tapes the couple recorded. She was kind to Seghers too and though he doesn’t spare her, he fully acknowledges that without Loretta Di Lelio we all would have been so much the poorer as she was the driving force that kept Corelli going. Without her he probably would have been a shooting star like Gino Penno.

The book has a good index, interesting footnotes and above all a wealth of (sometimes too small) photographs. A lifelong Corelli fan like myself recognizes only a few of them; the majority is new to me and a tribute to the care and enthusiasm of Seghers, himself a well-known Dutch photographer. Though the author is not a native English speaker the language is fluent and makes for a very good read. Yes, I know what is lacking: the CD, with some unpublished Corelli-takes; with examples of his rehearsals at home of the aborted Scala-project of Guillaume Tell (Seghers warns us that the differences between the voice in rehearsal and performance are big). But Seghers intends to put a lot of his discoveries free unto the net (see links) and I can only advise to go and have a look. In short, notwithstanding some small points, this is a major biography which holds it own compared to the best among tenor books (Henstock’s De Lucia, Farkass’ Björling or Emmons’ Melchior)). I’m disappointed that up to now those well-known pretentious posters on opera forums who are always swooning about “Franco sang so and Franco did that” have not even taken pains to discuss the book in detail (there is still no customer review on Amazon US).  They should rave on the book while advising everybody to buy it. Shame, as this is necessary for two reasons. One is to convince the publishers that books on great singers have a public that is willing to spend a few bucks. And second and most of all to tell René Seghers he should continue. We are still awaiting good honest English language biographies instead of the usual Italian hagiographies of those three other giants Mario Del Monaco, Carlo Bergonzi and Giuseppe Di Stefano. And a man like Roberto Bauer, who plays such an important role in the Corelli story, was at home in nearly every Italian opera singer’s house during the second golden age of singing. His life and correspondence as a whole must be fascinating. Go for one of them René.

Jan Neckers, Operanostalgia

  1. I can indeed confirm Seghers’ unrelentness efforts in trying to unearth archives in several Italian institutions. He succeeded wherever it was possible but also met with defeat (archives had gone if ever they even existed) and blunt refusal to cooperate(Parma was a case in point).  (Ed.)