Tenor Franco Corelli was remembered Thursday as one of the greatest opera stars of the 20th century, a singer whose ringing, versatile voice and strapping good looks thrilled audiences at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and other top theaters around the globe.
Praise from colleagues poured in a day after Corelli died in Milan at age 82. He had been hospitalized in August for what was believed to be a stroke.
“Tall and gorgeous, with a voice to match. I regret we never sang together,” said Beverly Sills, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera.
“He was the most impressive tenor I have heard live,” tenor Placido Domingo said.
“There was this unbelievable amount of easiness, the way he used to go all the way to the top with this sort of animal instinct which filled the theater and really got to you, this heroic sound. It was sensational,” Domingo told The Associated Press by phone from Washington.
Carlo Bergonzi, himself one of the most stylish tenors of his time, called Corelli “one of the greatest tenors of the century.”
Born April 8, 1921, Corelli made his opera debut in 1951 in Spoleto, Italy as Don Jose in Bizet’s “Carmen.”
He inaugurated the opera season at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala three years later with Maria Callas, singing in Spontini’s “La Vestale.” He made his debut at The Royal Opera in London in 1957 as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca,” becoming one of the world’s finest spinto, or large-voiced, tenors.
He appeared frequently at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, which was for many years his favorite venue.
“He actually began with a strong but not beautiful voice, and in the end he was so very, very refined, and so incredible with wonderful artistry,” Luciano Pavarotti said in a written statement.
In all, Corelli sang 368 performances at the Met, where he made his debut on Jan. 27, 1961, as Manrico in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” opposite soprano Leontyne Price, who also made her house debut that night.
He made his Vienna State Opera debut in 1963. His final performance with the Met was on tour in Puccini’s “La Boheme” on June 28, 1975.
Corelli was a perfect romantic lead: a lyric tenor with great versatility, he also had a strapping and muscular build.
He appeared in opera houses around the globe with such greats as Callas, with whom he had a special partnership for many years, Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson and Joan Sutherland.
He frequently sang opposite Nilsson at the Met in Puccini’s “Turandot,” taking the role of Calaf, the prince who melts the heart of the icy princess Turandot, the role sung by Nilsson. In their second-act duet, they delighted audiences by competing to see who could hold the climactic high note longer.
At a 1961 performance in Boston on tour with the Met, Nilsson outlasted him and Corelli left the stage. Nilsson told the AP that Corelli finally returned to the stage after Met general manager Rudolf Bing said he could bite Nilsson instead of kiss her.
“He neither bit nor kissed me. It all ended appropriately in any case,” she said by telephone from Baastad in southern Sweden.
“He was very kind and good-natured, but very temperamental and unpredictable. You never quite knew what he was up to,” she said. “We finally became very good friends, but sometimes it was like a bullfight on stage.”
Barry Tucker, son of the late American tenor Richard Tucker, called Corelli “one of the greatest tenors of all time,” and remembered him for his ringing high Cs.
Soprano Mirella Freni called him a gifted and kind colleague.
“He had incredible top notes. He was so beautiful on the stage,” Freni said by telephone from her home in Modena. “He had many, many gifts from God.”
As his voice aged, Corelli sang fewer operas and concentrated more on concerts. He retired in 1976, although he was present as a special guest in October 2002 at a Milan awards ceremony where he received a standing ovation.
Corelli funeral was scheduled for Friday afternoon at San Carlo’s Church in Milan, with a burial at Cimitero Monumentale, opera Web sites said.
He is survived by his wife, the singer Loretta Di Lelio.