Basso buffo Fernando Corena, heralded as the true successor to comic bass Salvatore Baccaloni, began his career singing non-comic roles just as did the imposing Baccaloni. A gift for buffoonery, however, cleared the way for his concentration on comic roles and there it was that he achieved his reputation. Although sturdy and of considerable volume, his voice was less flexible than Baccaloni's, less able to bend itself around the complexities of such arias as Bartolo's A un dottor or any of the other patter songs that populated his repertory. Still, his involvement with each of his impersonations was so complete that technical shortcomings could be set aside.
Initially, Corena seemed headed for the priesthood, preparing himself at Fribourg University for holy orders. After winning a singing contest, however, he turned to the pursuit of a career in music. He trained first in his native city beginning in 1937 and later, encouraged by Italian conductor Vittorio Gui, traveled to Milan to study with Enrico Romani. After an unofficial debut there, he returned to Switzerland for the duration of WWII, performing on radio broadcasts and appearing in opera at Zurich's Stadttheater. Corena's official debut took place in Trieste in 1947, when he sang Varlaam in Boris Godunov. Soon, he had offers from many parts of Italy and began singing such varied dramatic roles as Sparafucile (bass), Escamillo (bass baritone), and Scarpia (baritone). In 1949, he took part in the premiere of Petrassi's Il cordovano at La Scala. Although he did not fully surrender the serious bass/bass baritone repertory, he steadily moved into the buffo roles and found his career moving ever more swiftly upward.
Corena's Metropolitan Opera debut took place as Leporello on February 6, 1954, and he established himself almost immediately as a favorite singer in that house. For a quarter century, he all but owned the great comic roles, creating impossible to forget portraits as Dulcamara, the Sacristan (Tosca), Don Pasquale, both Bartolos, Falstaff, Melitone, Don Alfonso, Benoit, Gianni Schicchi, Sulpice, Mustafa, and Geronte. By the time he closed his Metropolitan career in 1978, he had sung 92 performances of the Sacristan alone.
Aside from his close relationship to New York, Corena enjoyed considerable success elsewhere; Chicago heard him in a variety of roles, comic and serious, beginning in 1956 when Leporello played off the Don Giovanni of Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. Other notable Chicago performances came in Le nozze di Figaro, Cosí fan Tutte, Il barbieri di Siviglia, Cenerentola, Turandot (Ping), and Thaïs (Palémon). The Edinburgh Festival welcomed Corena's Falstaff in 1956 and Covent Garden heard him for the first time in 1960, when he sang Rossini's Bartolo. In addition to Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Verona, and Buenos Aires, Corena appeared at Salzburg as Osmin in Giorgio Strehler's production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1965. Although he created an interesting character, Corena was found short of the deep bass resonance and flexibility demanded by the role. A frequent visitor to the recording studio, Corena left numerous recordings documenting his best-known roles; many were recorded on multiple occasions (Bartolo, Leporello, Sacristan, for examples) and one or two were from the serious repertory (Il Re in Aida). Although Corena's physical presence was necessary for fullest appreciation, he still managed to infuse his singing with abundant personality. There has been no one comparable since his retirement.