FRANCO CORELLI (1921 - 2003) -- RECOLLECTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
-- Geoffrey Riggs
Since a lion's share of leading tenor roles, in the Italian rep especially, are either fighters or lovers -- when they aren't both -- any artist therefore who can fuse the two in one and the same voice is automatically rare and valuable. Possibly some of the keenest commentary on Corelli that I've yet read is Paul Jackson's in his second volume on the MET b'casts: he spotlights this mercurial aspect to Corelli's singing right away. For me, that is maybe Corelli's greatest asset. Simply contrasting his "Si, fui soldato" with his "Io non ho amato ancor" in Andrea Chenier makes this point better than anything I could say.
Beyond this, Corelli may be unique (even though some very murky cylinders of De Reszke suggest Corelli may not be alone in this) in the astonishing capacity to combine the heroic and the amorous within one and the same phrase through veritably heightening the sweetness of his tone even as he swells it. How many other dramatic tenors *increase* the lyricism in their timbres while swelling the tone?! One thinks of dramatic tenors like Caruso, Melchior, Lauri-Volpi, Del Monaco, Vickers, Vinay, Urlus, Tamagno, etc. -- all of these, for the most part (however adept *some* *of* *them* may be in combining the lyrical and heroic styles), *usually* forfeit lyrical coloring when going for the grandest tones of all. Yes, Caruso, Melchior, Lauri-Volpi, Vickers -- they all sing quite tenderly when they want to. But the intrinsic coloring of their voices *usually* preclude tenderness when opening out for the "trumpet blast" (yes, there are a few tender fortissimos in the Caruso canon, but they are mostly from his earlier records when the voice was not yet a full dramatic, IMO).
For a few, this predominantly tender quality that Corelli sustains even at his most clarion marks him as the greatest tenor of all, for others it ends up as a handicap, making his singing a bit cloying. For me, I became a diehard Corelli fan during the '60s, because I found the generous "vocal face" (to use John Steane's phrase) exceptionally vulnerable and moving, particularly in the context of so much intrinsic vocal power. There was genuine interpretive inwardness *in* *the* *voice*, a feeling of a soul laid bare despite the glorious vocal armor and squillo, stirring and intriguing one through its touching contrast of abundant vocal power versus human susceptibility. During the '60s, no other tenor that I had yet heard in person affected me the same way.
That said, there are reasons why I might demur, many years later, at the idea of according him the title of Greatest Tenor.
There were nights when he clearly was not on top of his music.
There were nights when a fidgetiness overtook what could sometimes be a marvelously concentrated and focused interpretive approach. Overwhelming but artistically focused spontaneity of feeling alternated with utter lack of self-control or self-discipline. Yes, there were some nights when even Corelli's less disciplined phrases still rang emotionally true and did not seem at all self-indulgent, but there were, conversely, nights when self-indulgence was the dominant impression. Mind you, even today, I prize an undisciplined emotional engagement with the character *marginally* more than a deliberately calculated, self-preserving restraint. But the balance of preference, for me, is a close one.
There is also -- and this is putting it mildly, IMO -- his highly individual diction to consider. Many will stoutly maintain -- and no doubt this is true -- that this was strictly a matter of regional dialect, not something that was necessarily under Corelli's control at all. At the same time, many find it assuming distinctly eccentric proportions in his studio recordings, where closer miking is generally the rule (even a very few of his "live" recordings bring this out as well).
I can only say that this was not so noticeable in the hall, and I was never so bothered by it, since I brought primarily what I had heard in the hall to the experience of hearing his studio recordings at the time, where I usually latched on more to those aspects that had already dominated in the hall, recognizing and focusing on those aspects of his singing for which I would make an eager purchase of his studio recordings in the first place (in those days, I was innocent of "live" recordings).
It has to be recognized, though, that for future generations the diction will probably bulk larger, for the simple reason that it bulks larger in many of the studio recordings than it did in the hall. This is a shame and doesn't give a proportional picture of his artistry in person. But it is a fact, nevertheless, and those of us who heard him have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that posterity's picture of Corelli will always be affected to a degree by an exaggerated impression of this dialect of his.
Lastly, when one recalls how assured a Melchior, a Lauri-Volpi, a Vickers, what-have-you, still sound in their 50s, Corelli, however durable his *voice*, makes a disturbing contrast in, IMO, his inconsistent *technical* control from about 1968 on, when he is only 46 (turning 47 in April)! Yes, there are still some exciting evenings after that, but they are fewer and farther between, IMO. Of course, he is one of the finest tenors of the century all the same, and I would never regret having seen him in his prime. It's just that a greater discipline and musicianship would have extended his career so much longer. It's a shame.
(By way of shameless proselytizing, I would like to add that impeccable musicianship need never preclude "stem-winding" emotional spontaneity: vide the musician's musician Richard Tauber, whose emotional effect on his audiences, amply confirmed by his heartfelt recordings, was legendary.)
I'd say, for the sake of argument, that there would be three main factors in judging vocalism apart from the instrument itself: abundance of tonal coloration, basic musicianship, resiliency in the long term. These are separate and apart from matters of interpretation, intelligence, etc.-- these are purely to do with one's physical mastery of the instrument itself.
Corelli had an infinite array of colors and dynamic shading. For some, he actually overdid the sheer contrasts, but I admit I was, perhaps, a "sucker"(?) and I found it thrilling. Recently, Ed Rosen put Corelli's '66 Nessun dorma on his web site, and it conveys a very accurate impression of what I recall in person: seamless legato in the opening phrases, the supple reigning in of dynamics at "speranza", the effortless opening out at the "Ma il mio mistero" lines culminating in a "bocca lo diro" of dazzling freedom and a "Quando la luce" utterly free of the throat. As if this isn't enough, "splendera" is given a tender pianissimo, evoking the hushed stillness of dawn. "[F]a mia" is given a similar pianissimo, and so on.
When it comes to basic resiliency and musicianship, those factors emerge more sharply through a retrospective of Corelli's career and some of the extant recordings we have of him.
His best years, IMO, were really seasons. Apparently, he would "retool" his voice through diagnostic sessions with a tape recorder (sic!) every summer or so. I remember suspecting something of this kind before I even knew for sure he really did this. I would notice that there would be marked improvements in his singing from time to time around the early fall or during summer appearances. And things would start getting a little sloppy by late winter/early spring the following year. Clearly, there were always exceptions to this, but the general pattern seemed to hold. So for me, I've come to think of Corelli in terms of '60/61 versus '68/69 and so on, not '60 versus '69 or what-have-you.
Corelli started out with an occluded vowel production and a fast vibrato (*not* a tremolo) in the 1950s. As his career progressed during that decade, his production grew more open, sweeter, and much steadier. He hit his stride in the '60/61 season, though there were occasions in the '50s when one could guess the (positive) path his development was taking at that time (the Frazzoni Fanciulla ['56], the Cerquetti Norma ['58], the Olivero Adriana Lecouvrer in '59, etc.).
His Poliuto, opening the '60/61 Scala season, maintains this more forward, sweeter quality to a greater extent than any earlier performance.
I've always thought that Corelli's achievement in the Poliuto, a role written specifically for the practically superhuman Adolf Nourrit, is one of the more amazing things ever put on disc. True, I could wish this production had not opted for certain cuts (that missing "Fu macchiato" hurts). But no other Poliuto I've heard combines the same tenderness in the last act with the dark coloring in some of the earlier scenes, the physical ease across a huge range, the variety of dynamics throughout, the vivid "face" needed in the voice for the mercurial shifts in Poliuto's remarkably volatile character, the easy strength and sweep in the great confrontation in the temple that closes Act II.
Unfortunately, his partner, Callas as Paolina, can sound pretty tentative, IMO, alongside Corelli's brilliantly moody and assured impersonation. He defers to Callas in one respect, and certainly not a negligible one for this opera: easy flexibility. But even here, adept as some of Callas's passagework is, too many agile sequences such as her cabaletta, for instance, still find her uncomfortable in other respects, making her undoubted agility less the point, sad to say.
I do not necessarily believe either artist to be superior to the other. But with an historic achievement like Corelli's Poliuto to consider, arguably the most expressive rendering available of arguably the most comprehensively demanding tenor role yet written, this seems a clear instance where Corelli overshadowed Callas rather than the other way around. Yes, her quiet lower-lying artistry in the "Qual preghiera" solo, for instance, is highly distinctive and a balm for the ears as well as the soul. Would that all of Paolina's music could have been like that the whole evening! It's frustrating to think that in later performances of this run, Leyla Gencer, then at her peak, took over, while Corelli's growing confidence in this opera spurred him on to a triumphant optional high D (a note nowhere in his discography, SFAIK) at the conclusion of the Temple Scene! Yet I'm not aware of a single note having surfaced from this later pairing.
A related "What-if?", if I may: Personally, I regret Corelli's having never sung Otello. I think he would have had no problem with it. In fact, he would have thrived on it, IMHO.
Since I am one of those who feels that it's axiomatic that Poliuto is fully as heavy as Otello -- while being even more difficult because of its requirements for greater flexibility -- I feel that Corelli had already "crossed the Rubicon" in doing Poliuto in 1960. He was already 39 years old at that time. The essential nature of his voice was pretty much set. Having survived -- in fact, triumphed, IMO -- in Poliuto, Otello might not have been much of a stretch for him after all.
I recall that Ponselle in her autobiography speaks of her having been momentarily at sea after having mastered Norma -- in effect, "where can you go after Norma?!" Corelli may have felt the same way about Poliuto -- "what could possibly trump Poliuto?!" So after doing one other big Nourrit role, Raoul in Huguenots (or Ugonotti in Italian), Corelli branched out in more lyric repertoire instead rather than attempt a futile(?) duplication of his Poliuto triumph with Otello or with its equivalent. The chief remaining Nourrit role we will never hear him in now is Arnold in Rossini's Guillaume Tell, arguably more of a complement to the staggering Poliuto than the marginally more lyrical Raoul. In a way, I regret the absent Arnold as much as the absent Verdi Otello.
As an artistic achievement, Poliuto stands as probably the most ambitious accomplishment of Corelli's career. But his instrument, while having reached a significant plateau with this role, was not yet as completely free and open as it would later become.
After 1968, he will occasionally (as in a Vienna Don Carlo in Vienna, 1970) show signs of a renewed authority, but, personally, I find these the exception rather than the rule. It was somewhat encouraging, though, that there was a slight resurgence of professionalism and dependability during stretches of 1972, 1973, and early 1974. It seemed he had settled to more modest technical ambitions, and he was temporarily reconciled to lowering his sights for the sake of maintaining an easier, more natural style. But the days of astonishment and sovereign ease were over.
The voice itself was now getting just a bit dry. But it was still a good voice. We thought he might settle into a general routine of being a respectable, reliable, if unremarkable, trooper, no longer in the highest rank but useful for providing a reasonably distinguished night at the opera. But whether through nervousness or through impatience at having become so-- *technically*--ordinary, he started fussing and distorting the line again during 1974, now without half of the technical chops he had once had and with disastrous results. (Not that there weren't occasionally such evenings in '72 and '73 as well. It was just more frequent by '74.) The end came soon thereafter.
Many years later, in the early 1980s, he tried a comeback. There are some fairly effective Neapolitan songs extant from this phase, but they are relatively tame, IMHO.
What should you listen to?
Calaf in Turandot was probably his finest role. Fortunately, the EMI studio Turandot from 1965 not only has Corelli in good voice; the entire recording is, IMO, the finest Turandot available. With Nilsson's phenomenally easy Turandot and Scotto's deeply affecting Liu from her absolute prime, this is the ideal set that every fan should have for Puccini's final masterpiece.
Of course, a number of his "live" '60s Turandots, a few of which have survived, had to be, in any case, some of the finest examples of Italian tenor singing I had ever heard. IMHO, those Turandots, his Cheniers and his late '60s Don Carlos may possibly have been his greatest roles.
I regret that, of those three, I did not get to catch his Don Carlo until after he had already begun his intermittent struggles of the '70s, but I'll never forget that '66 Chenier in the theater. In fact, it is the lyricism of much of his singing there that seems to have stayed with me more vividly than the sheer strength of that sound. On stage (early '66 at the MET), the combination of the poet and the fighter was complete, both vocally and dramatically. Here was a revolutionary who was equally credible in a love scene and in a trial for his life. In fact, the sense of living life on the edge came alive with Corelli as with nobody else I've ever seen in this role. It was clear, through Corelli, that Giordano intended Chenier to be presented as someone who consciously seeks to play life risking only the highest stakes. Hokey, maybe, but desperately real all the same. (Tebaldi's Maddalena wasn't bad either, although she was past her very best.)
Corelli is fine on the EMI recording (1963, his first peak), but, what with a phlegmatic Maddalena, IMO, in Stella, and Santini's stop/start conducting, the palpable electricity of the MET b'cast of '66 only comes and goes in the EMI recording. That's what gives the '66 b'cast its edge. I'm just glad I saw it. There may be a few isolated phrases here and there that come off a bit more tidily in '63 than in the MET b'cast (the '65/'66 season was very good, but not as consistent as '62/'63), but everything in the b'cast is characterized by just that extra bit of contrast, that keener and more startling shift of mood, vocal coloring, etc. (There is also another "live" Tebaldi/Corelli Chenier -- from Vienna in 1960 -- but, even though Tebaldi is in better form there, Corelli's interpretation is not yet so keenly developed as in '63 or '66, IMO.)
The role of Don Carlo and Franco Corelli just clicked. It was one of those happy cases where an opera and an artist were a perfect match. Both the "live" '66 (the Met on tour) and the '70 (from Vienna) happen to be fascinating documents of a performer with magnificent gifts applying them with genuine interpretive genius. Yes, the '70 performance is not as relaxed or quite as varied as the '66, which comes from his very peak, after all, and is a strong candidate for the finest "live" document we have of him, IMO. But considering the somewhat unsure performances we hear ca. '70, this Vienna performance is a pleasant surprise, artistically. He is still in touch with the music and the role here.
Sincerely, I do not believe one has truly heard what Corelli is fully capable of in this music unless one has heard the '66, or, failing that, the '70.
To sum up, not only is the instrument in gleaming condition in '66, his sensitivity and imagination have been fully sparked by this Hamlet-like figure (the nearest Verdi ever came, IMO, to crafting such a haunting character), while in '70 we hear him still under that same happy spell, despite a somewhat less melting tone at certain points. An important point in favor of the '70 perf., though, is its superior sound quality, especially in the new ORFEO transfer.
By contrast, neither the early '60s nor the bulk of the '70s give us much of a hint of the full greatness of Corelli in this role. (Ironically, the voice sounds just slightly more rested and deeply anchored in a '72 Don Carlo than in the Vienna '70 performance, but the singing itself doesn't seem as conscientious as in Vienna.)
Two other roles made a deep impression on me: his Cavaradossi (Tosca) and his Alvaro (Forza del destino).
For his Cavaradossi, there is an embarrassment of riches. His studio recording (Decca/London), especially in Act III, is a rare case of a studio outing in which we do get a real feeling of what it was like hearing him in the hall, and the variety of shading this artist was capable of is finally given full play. This set (featuring Nilsson as Tosca) was made in 1966, and, after all, the '66/'67 season was probably his finest season. From January of 1967 comes another strong candidate for the finest "live" document we have of Corelli: a Tosca from Parma. No, the cast is nowhere near worthy of him, and as for any comparison with Nilsson, forget it (even though Nilsson, IMO, was not exactly the world's ideal Tosca either, however magnificent her voice). But one wonders whether Corelli was ever better: his "E lucevan le stelle" from this evening is one of the selections on the CD accompanying Marina Boagno's book on Corelli (for Baskerville Press) and one can see why. It encapsulates his art. The quiet loneliness of this reverie developing into the most desperate cry of anguish and loss is unerringly shaped. Even when the sheer abundance of vocal plenty threatens to overwhelm the piece, there is in the midst of this tumult a spellbinding decrescendo that leaves time standing still. Finally, he can be heard in nearly as good form in 1965 opposite Maria Callas's Tosca on the occasion of her comeback to the MET.
I recall a summer Tosca in '73 (with Bumbry and Gobbi). Yes, there was more to admire than to regret, and it was easily superior to the Tosca he had performed during the regular season in the winter of '72/73 (with Kirsten and Gobbi the evening I went). But, IMHO, even though that later summer '73 Tosca was somewhat superior, I still did not find it superior, say, to most of his Toscas during the mid-'60s. I found it good, but not tremendous, as he had been.
Fortunately, I did see a Forza del Destino featuring his Alvaro in splendid voice. This was at Philadelphia in 1968. The other singers were Amara (replacing the scheduled Leontyne Price), Merrill (the best I ever heard him) and Hines, who was already starting some of the vocal problems he is so frank about in his book. Hines did not start getting back on track until the early '70s. That night, it was clear that Alvaro and Corelli were a perfect fit. The brooding melancholy, the secretiveness, the volatility, the sense of being in exile (he is, after all, a disinherited Prince) were all in that dark, mysterious sound with its flashes of lightning. As with "E lucevan le stelle" for Cavaradossi, he also gave us one indelible moment of mortality in Alvaro, shrouding the "Solenne" duet (when Alvaro is sure he will not live through the night) in the ghostliest timbres, laid out flat on his back, singing his patented decrescendo flawlessly at the second "vi stringo al cor mio" without seeming to move a muscle. The sense of life ebbing away was unforgettable. I would say his finest recorded Forza is also "live" at Philadelphia, opposite Eileen Farrell in 1965 (on SRO). (Here, he opts for the decrescendo in the first statement.)
As to other items in general, _maybe_ earlier b'casts like the December '60 Poliuto (of unique historical value), the Battaglia di Legnano (December '61), the Gli Ugonotti (smack dab in the middle of '62), and so forth, are well worth hearing (I'm not saying they aren't), but for starters, I would concentrate on the '62/63, '64/65, and '66/67 seasons.
From '62/63, listen to the Scala Trovatore under Maestro Gavazzeni, the EMI Chenier, and the second songs LP called "Memories of Naples."
From '64/65, I would pick the Scala opening night Turandot with Nilsson and Vishnevskaya, the Met Forza b'cast with Tucci, the Met Ernani with Leontyne Price, the SRO Forza with Farrell at Philly, and the EMI Turandot.
From '66/67, I would pick the Decca/London Tosca with Nilsson, the Ed Sullivan Chenier duet with Tebaldi (it's out on Video), the Don Carlo with Kabaivanska (this has been out on Melodram), the Met Turandot with Nilsson and Freni, and the Parma Tosca.
Documents like these give at least a window on the ultimate greatness of Franco Corelli
Poliuto may be the more important artistically, but the Battaglia di Legnano, opening the '61/62 Scala season, is even freer in tone. It's true he gets badly winded in the penultimate scene, but he recoups for an effective deathbed finale. Another remarkable aspect to Battaglia is his coming on completely warmed up right off the bat. He was notorious for his "nerves" problem, and even in his best seasons his opening scene would be occasionally skittish and none too accurate. But here in Battaglia, Arrigo's entrance aria becomes an object lesson in easy long-lined singing. This is in contrast to the opening scene in Poliuto, which is good but not so open and relaxed as the rest of the evening. Even at that, the best moments in Poliuto never quite have that freedom of the Battaglia.
It is after this that we have his Raoul in Ugonotti, lifted from a Scala broadcast in 1962. Here, the tone is even freer than in Battaglia, while the vocal demands may be even greater, making this a greater artistic milestone. However, the baritonal heft in the low, while present in this Raoul, is not exploited quite so perilously or so frequently -- particularly in constant juxtaposition with his highs -- as in the Poliuto, making the latter still his most staggering technical foray.
A comparison of two '62 Trovatore performances shows marked improvement even during the few months separating a Salzburg Festival performance in July from a December opening night at La Scala. The reason these improvements assume such significance in Corelli's development lies in his growing control over his dynamic range. Interpretively on the one hand, the summer performance may project Manrico's character with a bit more energy than at La Scala. But on the other, certain pianissimi and diminuendi in the Scala opening are of a caliber that we just don't hear out of him earlier that year. True, this facility of his is always there to a creditable extent through most of his early career, but it becomes a veritable artistic wonder in the '62/63 season. The incredible control of the Scala Trovatore is not a flash in the pan. An Adriana Lecouvrer broadcast from the Met, a superb Chenier made in the studio for EMI, and his second LP of Neapolitan songs bear this out. The '62/63 season shows a consistency of musical, technical, and dynamic control that marked the first peak of Corelli's career.
Here--for me--the imponderables start to emerge. I sense that Corelli, consciously or not, either became too over-manipulative on the one hand or too sloppy on the other as a result of having attained the kind of astounding technical control he displayed throughout the '62/63 season. It seems to me that an occasional curtness of phrasing and over-muscular production overtakes his singing in the '63/64 season. Whether we're talking the Met Tosca broadcast with Nilsson, the Price/von Karajan Carmen, the EMI Trovatore, or the out-take with Callas of the Aida duet, I seem to hear the same thing throughout. Maybe there will be a simpatico phrase here, an effective note there, but the fundamental "dolce" quality he had been cultivating, such an unusual sweetness for such a sizeable instrument, is more often absent than present, which is not the case in '62/63.
Corelli may have been aware of this himself, because for the Scala opening night of '64/65, a Turandot with Nilsson, there is an abrupt, obviously deliberate, adoption of a far more simpatico, relaxed style--and the phrasing just goes on forever. This man appears incapable of singing a line of song in three breaths when one will do. The very notion that he could ever need to take a breath at all *appears* grandly irrelevant. (Of course, this is an overstatement. The fact is that scrupulous control of both tone production and the breath were clearly needed to maintain this exhilarating, sweeping style. It's the ostensible impression on the hearer that I am describing. For once--and here the cliche will do just fine-- Corelli had attained the "art that conceals art.") As with the Scala Trovatore, the Turandot opening night was also not a flash in the pan. His Forza broadcast from the Met with Tucci, the Met Ernani b'cast, the newly released SRO Forza with Farrell from Philly, his EMI Turandot all testify to a consistency of musicality and technical control during the '64/65 season fully the equal of the '62/63.
And once again that pesky pattern holds. Having attained perfect mastery of his instrument in '64/65, a somewhat careless, brash style takes over during '65/66. It retains more of a sweet quality than his other blipout, '63/64, did. The singing is more musical. But it represents a slight falling off in quality nevertheless.
The next season, his first at the new Met, '66/67, represents, for me, his peak year. We have a Gioconda, a Don Carlo, another Turandot b'cast (this time from the Met), a Chenier duet on the Ed Sullivan show(!), two studio recordings for Decca/London, a Tosca from Parma, and I have a hunch a few other items from this season that have temporarily fallen between the cracks. His output during this season was prodigious.
And he was in his element.
Comparing his phrasing in a perfectly fine '61/62 Gioconda b'cast with what he achieved in the '66/67 season makes my point. Enzo's phrase of longing for Laura in the Act I Barnaba duet pours out as one endless arch of tone in '66/67, where '61/62 finds him snatching an extra breath. In '66/67, we have musicality, heart, an abundance of vocal riches including sweetness, impeccable technical standards and infinite dynamic elasticity, true interpretive spontaneity, intelligence, and inwardness, and sheer performing relaxation combined to an extent that was rarely equalled in any other tenor of his generation.
Why didn't he hold to this standard? You will find many who will stoutly maintain that he did. Maybe it's true that the fundamental quality of his instrument per se did not alter that appreciably. But for those like myself who prized his capacity for maintaining a lyrical coloring even in his most heroic phrases, who were in awe of his ability to follow frequently impossible phrase markings without turning a hair, of giving an impression at times that he hadn't even bothered to take a breath at all(!), of taking the grandest tone and bringing it down to a whisper on a dime, much was compromised during the ensuing seasons.
From having started in the '50s with too covered a tone, he seemed to adopt too blary a vocal production in the middle of 1967. The '67/68 season seems to be a series of hit-and-miss opportunities. A new tension is accompanied by a resurgence of a problem occasionally encountered earlier, but here rendered more severe than ever: a pronounced, unmusical grunt at the conclusion of many a phrase. A concert in December of '67 finds him apparently jettisoning his baritonal foundations altogether, one of the real assets of his incredible instrument. Without that deep-seated "connection" to his low, the tightness and tension becomes especially pronounced. Granted, the sound quality of the tape is nothing much, but it is striking the way his low notes just disappear into the fabric of the noisy tape for much of that recital.
The end of the '67/68 season found him with a somewhat improved "connection" to his low, resulting in less tightness. But he sure took his time warming up! A Met Forza finds him not really in stride until the "Solenne" duet in Act III (or the Met's Act II). From there on, there are some quite stunning- -and genuinely moving--moments, but I know he was capable of better. I saw him in the summer of '68 doing a Forza in Philly that boasted much surer phrasing and a quicker warm-up than he had shown the previous spring. That and a good Romeo with Freni during the same week showed that we were probably witnessing a recurrence of the pattern established during the '62/63 season. In other words the "biannual zigzag":
62/63 Co64/65 Coree66/67 Core?68/?
Core Co/ Co' 65/66 ' Cre' 67/68 '
He may not have been fully the equal of his very best in those two Philly evenings (he still took a little time warming up for the Forza, although he was fine by the time of his aria--in contrast to the more tense delivery heard in the previous spring b'cast, and there was a momentary loss of energy and fullness of breath in the marriage scene during the Romeo), but these were, by and large, Corelli evenings very much on the plus side of the ledger. Everyone I was with that evening realized we were witnessing an extraordinary vocalist with a sheer sound that, if anything, was more beautiful than ever, whatever the momentary technical glitches. As an artist, he was finer that week than he had been at any time during the regular season.
But, sadly, the technical glitches were not momentary after that. I still believe that Corelli would have made the '68/69 season one to remember had he not suddenly dropped out of sight altogether in the following months. Many reasons were given: his father's death, dental work(!), a nervous breakdown. We may never really know. The bottom line is that his frantic unmusical style when he returned to the Met at the end of the '68/69 season was a shocker for many of us. The long phrase of old was now the exception rather than the rule. The magnificence of his instrument (still undamaged) seemed sadly irrelevant to many of us. The man's sense of sovereign ease, the sheer authority he projected in so many really demanding roles became intermittent from then on. To project strength or resolve for this scene or that passage, he seemed to resort to hectoring and short, grunted exclamations rather than the old grand musical authority.
A critic once wrote of the great Richard Tauber's ability to project to the audience the sense that "Oh, this is nothing at all; let's just have ourselves a great time." This describes in a nutshell what Corelli was able to project through much of the 60s. . .and this is precisely what he lost at the end of the '68/69 season. His frantic, occasionally floundering moments from then on were sometimes as terrifying to his sincere admirers as they must have been for him. An inexplicable air of amateurishness lay over the proceedings: this from a man who had refused shortcuts around the most daunting music, shortcuts habitually taken (however tastefully) by most of his rivals without so much as a pang of artistic conscience. He had been the technical wizard, the vocal conscience of his time for his repertoire--not just for high notes, as so many tiresomely reiterate, but for the ability to mold the grandest, longest phrase, the most daunting sostenuto, the most taxing decrescendo so it made thrilling musical, dramatic, and interpretive sense--true artistry, in other words. Now far from having anything to show for it, he seemed to need assurance, encouragement, retraining(???) from anyone who would listen!
I should clarify here that, in praising Corelli's laudable ambition in terms of incredibly difficult and conscientious application of myriad dynamics and shading together with staggeringly broad phrasing (at least for a brief while anyway), I am referring primarily to his imaginative treatment of music where the tenor is singing "solo", whether in lines of recitative, in a duet, or in an aria, or whatever. In these cases, he would habitually go beyond anyone else of his period in this repertoire, IMHO. But I hasten to add that I personally feel that this was the case for only slightly less than a decade. Beyond that time period, there are some trade-offs in one way or another, it seems to me.
Furthermore -- and this is most important -- he started habitually slacking off relatively early in his career when it came to his music in ensemble sequences during those passages where others were singing simultaneously along with him. In these cases, unfortunately, one could sometimes catch him "marking" his lines as if in rehearsal! Pretty disconcerting really. But considering how much he gave -- and gave and gave<G> -- throughout the rest of the evening, one couldn't help feeling that it was better to conserve his energy this way than in the exposed passages (of which there are many, many, many more, of course) where he almost never failed to thrill us time after time and to give of his very best no matter what.