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Marcello Giordani, Italian tenor best known in Britain for his role in ‘Simon Boccanegra’ at Covent Garden – obituary

Giordani with Gabriella Létay Kiss in 'Mamon Lescaut' at the Erkel Theatre in Budapest in May 2019
Giordani with Gabriella Létay Kiss in 'Mamon Lescaut' at the Erkel Theatre in Budapest in May 2019 Credit: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP

Marcello Giordani, who has died aged 56 after suffering a heart attack, was an Italian tenor with a golden voice and a gorgeous high register. He came to the attention of British audiences in 1997 as what Michael Kennedy described in The Daily Telegraph as a “thrilling Adorno” in Verdi’s opera Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden conducted by Sir Georg Solti and starring Kiri Te Kanawa.

Tall, handsome and with a strong physique, Giordani was a godsend to leading ladies. If his intonation wobbled on occasions, he nevertheless had a full-throated voice and created a powerful impression on the stage.

“He offers a big, brilliant tenor with the money notes, but not an instrument which invariably manages to knit an elegant lyrical line,” observed Rupert Christiansen in the Telegraph after Giordani’s performance as Cavaradossi in Tosca with Bryn Terfel and Angela Gheorghiu at Covent Garden in 2009.

Giordani in 'Madame Butterfly' at the New York Met in 2006 Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

He was born Marcello Guagliardo on January 25 1963 in the Sicilian town of Augusta. His father, Michele, a former prison warder, owned a petrol station where his son would help out. “People still remember me when I was 12 or 13, singing or bringing coffee,” he said in 2007.

On leaving school he worked for a bank, but found it boring. Despite not playing an instrument and having no previous experience, he decided at the age of 19 to try his hand at singing. “I never studied in a conservatory,” he told The Boston Globe in 2008. “I studied with private teachers.”

His professional debut was as the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto at Spoleto in 1986 and two years later he appeared at La Scala in Milan, singing Rodolfo in La bohème.

Soon engagements were flooding in, including from the Vienna State Opera in 1992, and he changed his name to Giordani in the belief that international audiences would find it easier to pronounce.

By the early 1990s he was having vocal problems, the result of pushing his voice too hard. “I was considering the voice like it was my enemy,” he explained. He sought help from Bill Schuman, a vocal coach in New York, who spent six months working intensely with him. Some years later Giordani was able to report: “[Now] I never fight with my voice. We wake up together, we walk together, we spend 24 hours together. The voice is my friend.”

He made his debut at Covent Garden as Alfredo in La traviata in 1995 under Solti, although it was his return visit two years later for Simon Boccanegra that captured the ear of the public and the critics in what turned out to be Solti’s final appearances there before his death in September 1997.

He also appeared in Tosca at Covent Garden in 2009 and 2011, although by then his career was largely in New York, where he sang in some 240 performances at the Metropolitan Opera.

With Deborah Voigt in 'La Fanciulla del West' in New York in 2011  Credit: Mary Altaffer/AP

On one occasion in America he was alarmed to receive an unexpected letter from the Supreme Court. “I got a little nervous,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh my, what have I done?’ ” It turned out to be an invitation from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the opera-loving justice, to sing for the bench. He even managed to get members of the court to join him in singing “Funiculi, Funicula”.

In 2008 he sang as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass in the Yankee Stadium, New York. “For me, being Italian and Catholic, it is a sort of dream,” he said beforehand. “Singing beside him with 60,000 people listening, I will feel so small.”

Giordani married Wilma Ahrens in 1990; they had met two years earlier when she was working for a concert promoter in Switzerland. She survives him with their two sons.

Marcello Giordani, born January 25 1963, died October 5 2019