Giovanni Martinelli was born into a large family, being the eldest of fourteen children, and as a child learnt to play the clarinet. During his military service he served as a bandsman, but the power of his voice so impressed his bandmaster that he arranged singing lessons for him with Giuseppe Mandolini in Milan. Martinelli’s very first role on-stage was the Messenger / Aida: this was in 1908 and his formal debut came in 1910, with Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan when he substituted for the tenor Giuseppe Sala. His immediate success led to his appearance at the same theatre in the title role of Ernani a few weeks later.
Puccini’s La fanciulla del West had its Italian premiere in Rome during 1911. Together with tenor Amedeo Bassi, Martinelli auditioned successfully before Toscanini, Puccini and Ricordi for the part of Dick Johnson. Martinelli sang the final three performances in Rome, after which he sang the part in the first performances at La Scala, Milan in 1912, with Toscanini conducting, as well as in productions later mounted at Naples, Brescia, Genoa and Monte Carlo. In 1912 also Martinelli enjoyed a successful debut at the Royal Opera House in London as Cavaradossi / Tosca. Later roles in London included Canio / Pagliacci, Pinkerton / Madama Butterfly, Rodolfo / La Bohème, Dick Johnson (1912), Gennaro / I gioielli della Madonna (Wolf-Ferrari, 1913), Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera and Paolo / Francesca da Rimini (Zandonai, 1914), a role which he also sang at the opera’s Italian premiere in Milan during 1916.
Martinelli made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 1913 as Rodolfo; this company was to be his principal arena of activity until 1945. During this time he sang more than 900 performances of thirty-eight operas. At the Met he became a close colleague of Caruso, who gave him his costume for Canio; and after Caruso’s death in 1921 Martinelli assumed many of his dramatic roles. He proved to be an outstanding singer of the often taxing dramatic tenor roles in operas by Verdi, such as Manrico / Il trovatore, Radamès / Aida and Alvaro / La forza del destino; as well as of other demanding parts such as Raoul / Les Huguenots, Jean / Le Prophète, Vasco / L’Africaine, Eleazar / La Juive, Don José / Carmen, Enzo / La Gioconda, des Grieux / Manon Lescaut and the title role in Andrea Chénier. Roles in premieres at the Met in which he participated included Lefèvre / Madame Sans-Gêne (Giordano, 1915), Fernando / Goyescas (Granados, 1916) and Huon / Oberon (Weber, 1918); and in their US premieres Lensky / Eugene Onegin (1920), Carlo / Don Carlo (1920), Heinrich / La campana sommersa (Respighi, 1928) and Gabriele / Simon Boccanegra (1932).
Occasionally Martinelli sang elsewhere, appearing for instance at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in 1916 and 1921, at the Rome Opera for the 1928–1929 season, and at the Teatro dal Verme, Milan in 1929. He made a triumphant return to Covent Garden for the Coronation Season of 1937 as Calaf / Turandot and in the title role of Otello, a role which he repeated in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. He also sang Tristan opposite Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde in Chicago in 1939.
His farewell performance at the Met was in 1945 as Pollione / Norma, although he continued to sing in fund-raising events at the Met and in 1967, at the age of eighty-two, sang the Emperor in Turandot. From 1946 onwards he was active in New York as a teacher.
A man of great personal charm, Martinelli enjoyed a reputation as a bon viveur. His voice had a clarion-like quality to it, ideally matching his extraordinary vocal stamina, and he cut a dramatically convincing figure on stage. His substantial recorded legacy, both official and unofficial, well captures the vigour, passion and authority of his singing.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).