Brillante

Pini-Corsi photo portrait c. 1914

Antonio Pini-Corsi (1858-1918) is remembered, if at all, for being the first Ford in Falstaff and the first Schaunard in La bohème. His voice was an agile baritono brillante, a category in which he has had distinguished successors. His style was derived from 19th-century Italian traditions of the buffo caricato (literally a “caricature comedian”), and in this he had no successors at all - so his 75 recordings are a fascinating glimpse of a vanished manner. And he was part of a lively, busy operatic sector that is even more forgotten than he is. How many Italian comic operas can you name between Don Pasquale and Falstaff? For most opera lovers the answer is zero. Pini-Corsi sang in twenty-seven. 

Here’s an excerpt from one, Le donne curiose by Emilio Usiglio, a setting of Goldoni’s comedy that Pini-Corsi performed in at least eight theaters (later at the Met he appeared in Wolf-Ferrari’s version). The score is here, and it’s worth following because the singer un-follows it differently in each of his three recordings.


“Baritono brillante” roughly defined: the range and vocal equipment to sing a classic Verdi baritone part, plus the vivacity of diction, rhythm, and action traditionally required in opera buffa. At least one familiar role is formally designated by the term: Fra Melitone in the original cast-list of La forza del destino, which Pini-Corsi sang often. Here he demonstrates his Verdian bona fides in the sustained ending of the friar’s comic sermon: 

“Buffo caricato” roughly defined: a group of stock characters and certain composing styles and performing mannerisms that went with them. The characters: elderly suitors; quack doctors; lascivious officials; provincial impresarios; social-climbing fathers, and the like. The styles: Recitative-like declamation over orchestral music; quick patter in rapid-fire syllables; jaunty tunes more often than cantabile melodies. The mannerisms: improvised dialogue woven in around the librettist’s text; a lot of approximately pitched Sprechstimme; an extremely casual attitude towards the written notes when notes are sung at all; a certain bag of vocal tricks including comic falsetto and the occasional parody of grand-opera gestures. 

Here are samples from the Pietro Romani aria for Doctor Bartolo that was sung for more than a century in place of Rossini’s own, and popular enough that Pini-Corsi recorded it five times: 

 

Pini-Corsi as Don Pasquale, La Scala 1902

Musically, the approach here could be summarized as “making stuff up,” so rarely does the interpretation tally with the notated score. It’s important to realize that this was part of the game, not a by-product of illiteracy. Verdi, who was closely observant of his singers’ learning styles, called Pini-Corsi “a strong musician” (un forte musicista), and in at least two letters expressed trust in him to coach the less-secure Edoardo Garbin in the role of Fenton (in one of them he ordered an upright piano delivered to the baritone’s hotel room for that purpose).  

Also fascinating is the way Pini-Corsi - like his near contemporaries Battistini and De Lucia - still spoke the old Italian language of incidental ornamentation that would soon be ironed out. This means not ambitious full-scale variations like the kind we heard from Lillian Nordica (see Yankee Diva), but little grace-notes, turns, and bits of filigree wherever they felt like it. The Malatesta in this fragment from Don Pasquale is Ernesto Badini, 1876-1937, who succeeded to many of Pini-Corsi’s parts and eventually made the first complete recording of the title role in 1932. 

A detail in Pini-Corsi’s use of this language: when it is fast, it is really fast. In the bit from Dandini’s entrance in the next group of fragments, the running lines reach a tempo equivalent to singing sixteenth-notes at mm = 140.  

This was already somewhat old-fashioned at the time. Verdi’s opinion of it can best be guessed by the long curlicue he wrote for Pini-Corsi to sing when Ford speaks of standing outside Alice’s window singing a madrigal.

Pini-Corsi was born in Zara, which was then part of the Kingdom of Italy even though physically located in what is now Croatia. He made his debut at 20 as Dandini, followed by a decade in which all those unfamiliar comic operas (and all the familiar ones) alternated with roles like Alfonso in Favorita, Enrico in Lucia, Germont in Traviata, Carlo V in Ernani, and other grand-opera staples. From the late 1880s, the comic parts dominated, though he kept Rigoletto (singing it with Nellie Melba in the same Scala season that saw the Falstaff premiere). 

The height of his fame was roughly 1892-1909, when he sang Ford the world over and his other parts mostly in Milan, London, Buenos Aires, New York, and Monte Carlo, appearing regularly with Patti, De Lucia, Battistini, Bonci, Sembrich, Caruso, Chaliapin. During this time he made a familiar transition within the opera buffa sphere: from Figaro, Belcore, Malatesta, and Dandini to Bartolo, Dulcamara, Pasquale, and Magnifico in the same operas. 

In 1909 he took a full-season contract with the Met and renewed it for five years, earning good money, but accepting minor roles of a sort he had never sung in Italy. It’s an interesting list: the forte musicista could be counted on for house premieres in four languages. But it looked as though he might be content to finish his career as a versatile utility singer. With the outbreak of war in 1914, however, he decided to stay in Italy and enjoyed an incredibly busy “Indian summer.” He resumed all his principal star parts, returning to La Scala, La Fenice, the San Carlo, the Comunale of Bologna, the Regio of Parma, the Costanzi of Rome and many more, making contact with a new generation of colleagues (Galli-Curci, Dal Monte, Schipa, Stracciari). 

His last triumph was at the Dal Verme in Rossini’s Il signor Bruschino in 1917. Gaudenzio is as virtuosic a coloratura role as any in the baritone canon, and Pini-Corsi might have been the last “buffo” still standing whose training was old-fashioned enough to make a success of it. Edoardo Mascheroni, who had led the Falstaff premiere a quarter-century previously, conducted; it’s a pity that HMV did not invite the cast to document it on records. 

A brief illness carried off Pini-Corsi less than a year later, and the buffo caricato tradition died with him. Some excellent bassi buffi and baritoni brillanti remained, but they were already singing in a much tamer and more conventionally “accurate” style. They and their successors also went with the flow as a more subtle and differentiated concept of comic acting took hold. Maybe that is for the best; not every tradition has to be preserved, and “caricature” is exactly what Bruscantini in mid-century or Corbelli today are valued for avoiding in Pini-Corsi’s roles. Still, he is a link to a long-time staple of Italian theater, a genial interpreter, and a surprisingly expert vocalist. That is reason enough to be glad he took his shenanigans into the studio so often.  

Teatro Nuovo puts great emphasis on learning from the singers who had never heard, or heard of, microphone singing - primitive recordings from more than a century ago, forming a link to the traditions of opera’s heyday and the infinite potential of the natural, unassisted human voice. Check this space regularly for samples, and click here for some pointers on how to listen.