Renato Zanelli (1892-1935) was a Chilean tenor who made his mark on the international opera scene during his all too brief career. Born Renato Zanelli Morales in Valparaiso to an Italian father and Chilean mother, he received his education in Europe after his family relocated to Italy in 1894. After returning to his birthplace at the age of 19, Zanelli began studying voice with tenor Angelo Querzé, with whom he worked for the next three years. His debut occurred in Santiago in 1916 as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust. It was as a baritone that Zanelli would build his resume for the next several years. After a successful season in Montevideo, Zanelli moved to New York and auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza offered the young singer a contract and Zanelli made his Met debut in 1919 as Amonasro in Aïda. Sadly, he made little impression (most of the reviews didn’t even bother to mention him) and was soon disenchanted with what the company had to offer him. Zanelli sang seventeen performances of five roles…Amonasro in Aïda, Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino, di Luna in Il Trovatore, Tonio in Pagliacci, Valentin in Faust and Dodon in Le Coq d’Or…as well as fourteen Sunday Night Concerts. After four seasons…bookended by Amonasros…Zanelli decided to call it quits at the Met. Before leaving New York, however, he sang one final baritone role. In a performance of excerpts from Otello in Central Park during the spring of 1923, Zanelli sang Iago to the Moor of Antonio Paoli. He then journeyed to Italy for further vocal study.
Following a year and a half of intensive work with famed vocal coach Dante Lari (teacher of Giovanni Brevario and Gino Vanelli, among others) and conductor Fernando Tanara, Zanelli reemerged as a tenor. His first role in this new fach was Alfredo in La Traviata at the Politeama Giacosa in Naples in October of 1924. The following month, he took on a much more formidable task, Raoul in Gli Ugonotti at the Teatro San Carlo. In a very short time, Zanelli established himself as a dramatic tenor of the first rate with appearances in the major theaters of Venice, Milan, Florence, Bari, Naples, Turin, Parma, Bologna, Fiume, Lisbon, London, Cairo, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. His repertoire included the leads in La Fanciulla del West, Tosca, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Aïda, Andrea Chénier, Mefistofele, L’Africana, Carmen, Norma, Nerone, Pagliacci, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, Lohengrin and his greatest achievement, Verdi’s Otello. In 1930, he created the title role in the world premiere of Pizzetti’s Lo Straniero at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome and sang Otello to the Iago of his brother, Carlo Morelli (1897-1970) at the Teatro dal Verme that same year. In 1933, Zanelli returned to South America for a series of performances in Santiago and Buenos Aires. The tenor’s career was in full swing and he was at the peak of his vocal powers. Heralded as one of the greatest singing actors of his day, Zanelli seemed destined for a lengthy career. Sadly, things did not turn out that way…
During much of 1933, Zanelli admitted to feeling poorly, but ignored his symptoms and pushed himself forward to meet the demands of his busy schedule. In October, he managed two performances of Otello in Santiago and a concert in Osorno. These would prove to be the tenor’s final public appearances. In the early part of 1934, Zanelli was back in the U.S. for a string of opera and concert appearances but was forced to cancel when he realized that he was simply too ill to perform. He had lost a tremendous amount of weight and was in such great pain that he finally sought the advice of doctors. Their diagnosis was grim; advanced cancer of the kidney. The tenor fought valiantly against the disease for much of the following year, but lost the battle in the end. Zanelli returned to Chile and died in Santiago on March 25, 1935, just a week shy of his 43rd birthday.
Renato Zanelli made a lasting impression on the operatic world during his tragically brief life. In a career as a tenor that lasted only nine years, he established himself as a preeminent dramatic tenor and one of the leading Italianate Wagnerians of his generation. Unfortunately, his recorded legacy is pitifully lacking. Only a handful of recordings, made for Victor (as a baritone) and H.M.V. (as a tenor), exist to preserve the artistry of this great singing actor. These discs reveal a burly, masculine tenor, with an obvious baritonal foundation and rather muscular top notes. Zanelli uses his voice to great effect and his very theatrical interpretations give us some idea of his work on the opera stage. In this recording, Zanelli sings "Niun mi tema" from Verdi's Otello. Also heard briefly are tenor Nello Palai as Cassio and bass Guglielmo Masini as Montano. This was recorded in Milan for H.M.V. on June 22, 1929.