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October 16, 2009

Blast from the past: Franco Corelli sings 'E lucevan le stelle' from 'Tosca'

The debate over the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Puccini's "Tosca" shows no sign of dying down, three weeks after the opening night.

The ever-thought-provoking Parterre Box site, for example, posted yet another analysis of the much-booed staging this week, making lots of good points about both sides of the debate. (I came down on the side of those wondering why there was so much fuss over director Luc Bondy's concept, which struck me as quite valid, for the most part, and certainly interesting, as opposed to criminal. My views  earned me my own share of boos from some readers, but, hey, those of us in the tough working-class city of Baltimore are used to handling brickbats.)

You've got to say this for the Met, it sure did generate a helluva lot of chatter. And all that talk of "Tosca" has had me thinking again of the opera's music, which led me to remembering the incomparable Italian tenor Franco Corelli singing the role of Cavaradossi, which led me to his crowning interpretation of the Act 3 aria, E lucevan le stelle. No one, and I mean no one, could do what he did with this aria, especially at the passage when Cavaradossi recalls the beautiful form of his adored Tosca revealed beneath her cloak. What Corelli could do with his voice at the top of that phrase, producing a slow diminuendo on a single, seemingly endless breath, is simply beyond words.

I never saw Corelli live, but when I hear one of his performances I feel I am there, and nowhere is that experience more palpable than when I hear one of his opera house performances of "Tosca" that, fortunately, were recorded. Here's one of the best, a blast from the past taped in the 1960s in Parma, when the tenor gave a truly stunning account of E lucevan le stelle. The emotion he produces at the end of aria may be a little much for today's tastes, but the exquisite sensitivity he brings to that caressing phrase earlier (starting at 1:55 on the video), has a priceless, timeless stylistic value:

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:45 AM | | Comments (5)


Andrea Bocelli is the only tenor today who also sings that "filato" in "E lucevan le stelle," as taught to him by his maestro Franco Corelli, and he comes very close to his maestro in it, as can be heard on Youtube (singing live also) at

Franco Corelli had a beautiful instrument. There is no doubt his musicianship and the quality of his voice are splendid. Corelli's Romeo from Gounod's opera is also an example of his masterful sound. My only problem with Corelli is that you can barely understand a third of what he says. His diction, or lack thereof, would be unbearable if he did not have that instrument behind it. But he could sing all of Cavaradossi on "la" and I probably wouldn't mind.

Couldn't agree more. Thanks for commenting. TIM

"The emotion he produces at the end of aria may be a little much for today's tastes" -- if this be true, then any negativity is more a reflection of "today" than of Corelli. I've never before actually heard any recording by him, so this is an especial treat. All I can say is: WHERE did we lose this kind of singing??? (And yes, Bocelli _does_, indeed, recall this majestic standard.)

It is a great mystery why we can't hear singing like this anymore. I understand that voices are unique, and we obviously won't encounter this particular, fabulous sound again, but we should be able to find singers willing to try as much depth of phrasing and learn something of the technique that makes Corelli's incandescent phrasing so moving. (I've got assorted issues with Bocelli, but I'll check out his performance of this aria.) TIM

It is unfortunate that you never heard the great tenor Franco Corelli in person. I heard him at the MET many times,including Cavaradossi, and I've heard him in an intimate recital setting. There is no doubt that he was the greatest tenor I've ever heard. His squillo and volume and piannissimi were nothing short of spectacular. I've also had the esteemed pleasure of talking to Mr. Corelli in person. It sounded like he had a slight lisp-which perhaps accounts for his enunciation. Recordings did not do justice to Mr. Corelli's naturally great voice. Mr. Corelli took his singing very seriously and gave his all in performances. Today we have a tenor who, as a former pupil of Maestro Corelli, carries on the tradition in a most satisfactory manner. Fabio Armiliato is a tenor to be reckoned with- and he follows the Master's steps.

Thanks for commenting. I envy your encounters with the legendary Franco. I haven't heard Fabio in a while, but I do recall being quite impressed with performances I heard him give in the '90s. TIM

I was lucky enough to hear Corelli live at the height of his career. There was, and is, nobody like him: that tremendous trumpet of an instrument, his control and subtlety, his ability to capture all the emotion of the score (and then some). Most of today's tenors are like little boys in comparison. Oh yes, it didn't hurt that he looked like a Greek god, either!

Little boys, indeed. Thanks, Melinda. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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