Giovanni Martinelli was born in the Italian village of Montagnana on 22 October 1885, only two weeks before Aureliano Pertile, also a native of Montagnana. His first role was in 1908 as the messenger in Verdi’s Aida. 1910 he made his professional debut at the Teatro dal Verme in Milano as Ernani in Verdi’s opera by the same name. In 1911 he starred in Rome as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West after having rehearsed for the role with both Puccini, Toscanini and Ricordi secretly present. His immediate success within Italy brought him to Monte Carlo and London in 1912 (Cavaradossi, Tosca), and in 1913 he was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera of New York, of which he became an associate until his retirement in 1946, giving the insuperable amount of 926 performances in a total of 38 operas.
“Giovanni Martinelli ranks amongst the greatest tenors of the century, although he cannot be easily likened, in terms of vocal timbre, to his peers. He did not possess the ‘honeyed’ tone of Gigli, nor the robust baritonal quality of Caruso and he lacked Schipa’s wide spectrum of vocal colours. Surprising though it may seem, however, it is to the haunting artistry of Martinelli that one returns time and again, perhaps even in preference to his distinguished contempo-raries.” – Norman White
After Caruso’s death in 1921, Martinelli assumed many of the former’s dramatic roles, and he developed into a first-class interpreter of the Verdian tenors; two thousand of his four thousand five hundred performances were in Verdi roles. He betrayed a voice of robust build and relentless stamina in taxing roles with high tessitura, why he was well suited for demanding roles like Guglielmo Tell (Rossini), Samson (Samson et Dalila), Canio (Pagliacci), Manrico (Il Trovatore), Radamès (Aida) and Otello (Verdi). To the audiences of Covent Garden during the late 30’s he was the epithome of Otello, receiving unhibited acclaim for his interpretations after an 18 years absence with the company. He was also a much beloved Calaf in Turandot, with his clarion ring and distinctive legato.
He made his last performance in Turandot as the Emperor Altoum at the age of 80 in 1965. He passed away in New York on 2 February 1969. He was then 84.