Giovanni Martinelli (October 22, 1885 – February 2, 1969) was an Italian operatic tenor. He was associated with the Italian lyric-dramatic repertory, although he performed French operatic roles to great acclaim as well. Martinelli was one of the most famous tenors of the 20th century, enjoying a long career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and appearing at other major international theatres.
Biography and career
After service as a clarinetist in a military band, he studied with Giuseppe Mandolini in Milan, and made his professional debut at the Teatro dal Verme, as Ernani in 1910; the role of Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West became his passport role: he sang it for his debut in Rome (under Arturo Toscanini), Brescia, Naples, Genoa—all in 1911—as well as in Monte Carlo and at the La Scala theatre in 1912; Cavaradossi in Tosca was his debut role at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, in London and for his first American engagement in Philadelphia in 1913; on April 25, 1913 he portrayed Pantagruel in the world premiere of Jules Massenet's Panurge at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris.
Martinelli's debut at the Metropolitan Opera took place on November 20, 1913, as Rodolfo in La Bohème, where the young tenor's easy high C and pure, silvery tone attracted favorable attention; he was a Met mainstay for 32 seasons, with 926 performances of 36 roles, appearing most often as Radames in Aida; Otello; Manrico in Il trovatore; Don Alvaro in La forza del destino; Calaf in Turandot and Dick Johnson in La fanciulla del West; but also as Arnold in Guglielmo Tell; Eleazar in La Juive; Enzo in La Gioconda; Don Jose in Carmen; Vasco de Gama in L'Africaine; Canio in I pagliacci; Pollione in Norma. He also sang in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, often trying out new roles there, before singing them at the Met.
Outside the United States, Martinelli appeared in Paris and Buenos Aires during his prime but – oddly enough – his native Italy did not hear him at his peak. In 1937, he returned to London to sing at the Covent Garden in highly acclaimed performances of Otello and as Calaf, opposite the exceptionally powerful English dramatic soprano Eva Turner. Martinelli retired from the stage in 1950, although he gave one final performance in 1967 – at the age of 82 – as Emperor Altoum in Turandot, in Seattle. During retirement he taught singing in New York, where one of his pupils was tenor Jack Harrold.
Martinelli was essentially a spinto tenor of steely brilliance, commanding a strong high C; his rigorously controlled technique gave him exceptional breath control, although it did not eschew some occasional tightness and squeezing out of notes, particularly during the later phase of his career. His interpretive style was generally restrained and noble, but he was capable of delivering passionate, histrionic outbursts where appropriate in such melodramatic roles as Canio and Eleazar.
As his voice matured during the early 1920s, some music commentators in New York regarded him as being Enrico Caruso's successor in dramatic parts, even though the timbre of their voices were markedly different—Caruso's tone being much richer and warmer—Martinelli's forward, vibrant projection and broad phrasing found their supreme expression in Verdi's operas, ranging from Ernani to Otello; in lyrical or lighthearted music however, his voice production could be too forceful and stiff.
In private life Martinelli was said to be something of a playboy, possessing a charming personality, a wealth of memorable anecdotes and an impressive head of hair that grew silver with age. He was married to Adele Previtali (d. January 16, 1980) from August 7, 1913 until his death; they had three children: Bettina (born 1915), Antonio (born 1917), and Giovanna (born 1926).
His sense of humour was notorious, as was his criticism of other singers. Once, after listening to a baritone bellow the title role of Otello, he quipped "he sings it like a truck driver." A friend asked him what he thought of a famous American singer who also did the role. "Ah, how, he sings it like the truck".
Martinelli made a large number of commercial recordings for Edison and the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor by the acoustic and electrical processes which are available on LP and CD reissues. Some feature other great Met singers of Martinelli's day, with whom he sang, include the sopranos Frances Alda, Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle, contralto Louise Homer, baritones Giuseppe De Luca and Lawrence Tibbett, and the bass Ezio Pinza.
Transcription recordings were made of some of his live performances, including a 1935 concert of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (which also featured Elisabeth Rethberg, Marion Telva, and Ezio Pinza, broadcast by CBS), a 1939 performance of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra by the Metropolitan Opera, also with Rethberg and Pinza (broadcast by NBC), and various Otellos from the 1930s onwards—including a 1941 version with Lawrence Tibbett, Stella Roman, and Alessio de Paolis, under Ettore Panizza. Some of these transcriptions have been issued on LP and CD.
On August 6, 1926, Martinelli appeared in a Vitaphone short film, singing "Vesti la giubba" from I Pagliacci, one of eight short films shown before the Warner Brothers feature film Don Juan starring John Barrymore.
- D. Hamilton, ed. (1987). The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide to the World of Opera. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-61732-X.
- Roland Mancini and Jean-Jacques Rouveroux, (orig. H. Rosenthal and J. Warrack, French edition), Guide de l’opéra, Les indispensables de la musique (Fayard, 1995). ISBN 2-213-59567-4
- Harold Rosenthal and John Warrack, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, second edition, (Oxford University Press, London, 1980).
- J. B. Steane, The Grand Tradition (Duckworth, London, 1974).
- "Opera Star Martinelli Dies". St. Petersburg Times. February 3, 1969. Retrieved 2013-12-14.
Giovanni Martinelli, a leading tenor of grand opera's golden age, died yesterday at Roosevelt Hospital In New York. He was 83. ...
- Clifton Fadiman (ed.) The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, Boston, 1985, p. 386
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