Ira Siff salutes Carlo Bergonzi, whose sublime voice, magnificent artistry and wonderful collegiality have set him apart among opera’s royal family.
Carlo Bergonzi… the name alone calls to mind words such as dignity, devotion, refinement, passion. And for some time that name has inspired the use of the title maestro before it. This is most unusual among tenors, who are often the opera realm’s punch line. Even in today’s jargon-driven world, where the world “diva” has been reduced in import and expanded in usage to cover just about anyone of notoriety, maestro remains a significant accolade for one who neither waves a baton nor composes music. In the case of Carlo Bergonzi, it has been earned by an artist of indisputable stature, a member of opera royalty, as it were, and a role model for generation of singer to come.
His has truly been a life devoted to art, and his live performances and recordings constitute a legacy that exemplifies the best of his generation. Perhaps, looking at Bergonzi’s career of more than half a century, one should say generations. For although this tenor emerged at the same time as his illustrious compatriots and colleagues Giuseppe di Stefano, Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, he continued to be an active, sought-after presence long after those Three Tenors had left the scene and made room for the current Three – all of whom were in attendance at Bergonzi’s last New York appearance in May 2000.
Carlo Bergonzi was born on July 13, 1924, in the province of Parma, birthplace of Verdi and Toscanini. The only musical member of his family, young Carlo sang in choirs and at age sixteen entered the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma, where he remained for four years. World War II came, and with it a stint in a German prison camp because of his anti-Nazi sentiments. Liberated by the Russians in 1945, Bergonzi walked sixty-six miles to an American camp. On the way, thirst drove him to drink unboiled water, and he came down with typhoid fever; It took him a year to recover his health.
It was his prison experience that lead to his opera debut. A Prisoners’ Association had been formed, and in 1948 the group presented Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Veredo, near Milano, with Bergonzi – a baritone in those days – in the title role. There were eight musicians, and the stage swayed with the movement of the singers. The fee for the performances was 2000 lire ($3.20 at that time) not enough for dinner and round-trip transportation, so the baritone and this uncle took the train to the theatre, ate and after the show walked the five miles home. Soon thereafter, Bergonzi made a more official debut in Lecce, where he sang the baritone leads in Rigoletto, L’Elisir d’Amore and L’Amico Friz. But the young singer felt something was wrong vocally. His range was limited at both ends, and he instinctively felt that this was not his real Fach. Taking a gamble, Bergonzi left his teacher, retrained his own voice, and after three month of intense work made a second debut, on January 12, 1951, as Andrea Chénier, in Bari. His career-long association with the operas of Verdi followed immediately, as the new tenor was selected for a series of five RAI broadcasts commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death in 1951. Carlo Bergonzi the tenor was launched.
The enduring love affair between and the Met audience began with his company debut, as Radamès, on November 13, 1956, and spanned forty years, in which he appeared during twenty six season, performing twenty-three leading roles in 323 performances with the company. He was last seen, heard and awarded on ovation amounting to a demonstration at the gala commemorating James Levine’s twenty-fifth anniversary at the house, a marathon that was broadcast on Public Television.
Bergonzi’s gift were recognized immediately at his debut, the New York Herald Tribune’s Paul Henry Lang appreciating this “intelligent and cultivated singer”, who “phrases beautifully” and “knows his music and knows what to do with every note”.
Prophetically, Lang predicted that the debutant would become a “tenor of considerable refinement”. Also noted were his limitation as a physical actor, which have shadowed the tenor consistently but have never been what he’s about.
Operating acting can take many forms. In Bergonzi’s case, it manifests itself in the passion within the phrase. As the Maestro himself once put it, “I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino, but I have tried to learn to act with the voice”. And act with the voice he does, though not in the sense of declaiming, sobbing or substituting schtick for genuine artistry. This tenor observe musical marking religiously, drawing his histrionic performance directly from the intentions of the composer. Perhaps nowhere are those intention more clearly delineated than in the scores of Verdi, which are marked heavily with the dynamic and expressive wishes of their creator. To observe them at all is exceptional; to observe them in a natural, unmannered way is a great accomplishment and the hallmark of Bergonzi’s style. This is a true Verdian.
Arriving at the status has not come simply by nature; it has required devotion and work. Converting from baritone to tenor, Bergonzi had to master non merely the top notes, but more importantly – and more difficult – the mysteries of the passaggio, the notes between middle E and the G a third above it, which are the bridge to the top, and which can determine both a tenor’s success in the upper reaches and his vocal longevity. Verdi’s vocal writing is full of tricky passages involving the negotiation of this area of the tenor voice.
Carlo Bergonzi has devoted his life to solving those puzzle for himself, adjusting the solution as the voice matured and muscles naturally became less flexible. This is the art concealed by the artistry, the element of which, in the work of a great singer, remain invisibles has he practices his craft.
One indelible memory is that of Bergonzi finishing “Celeste Aida” with the written morendo on the climatic high B-flat, a challenge seldom accomplished outside a recording studio. This effects depends on the perfect blending of the head and chest register, on which this singer has lavished so much work. The adjustment of breath pressure required resembles in delicacy a tightrope walk, and many have faltered on the way from loud soft. It seems a small details, but the tapered ending makes the aria sensational and evocative of Radamès’s dreamy ardor – a musical nicety that transforms the dramatic moment. Most tenor are happy just to belt the note or with success; any dynamic play can prove risky. But Bergonzi took the risk. The results were usually perfect, but even when a tiny flaw appeared, Verdi’s point had been made, and that was of paramount concern to this artist.
Bergonzi’s gallery of Met roles included ten by Verdi. He essayed his debut role, Radamès, an impressive fifty-seven times between 1956 and 1978, but his favorite (and second most frequent) was Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, which he sang thirty-three times. Riccardo afforded an opportunity for the singer to display everything in his vocal and interpretative arsenal, from meltingly beautiful tone, to passionate outpourings in the love duets and solo scena, to liltingly playful passages of enormous charm in the Ulrica scene, when the king is disguised as a sailor. Memory conjures up a Met Ballo in the mid-1960s, with Bergonzi partnered by the searingly intense Amelia of Leornie Rysanek, along with vocally opulent contributions by Robert Merrill (Renato), Annelise Rothenberger (Oscar) and Jean Madeira (Ulrica). As a broadcast tape from 1964 attests, the tenor, at the peak of his powers, created a flawed monarch, torn between love and duty. Beautifully sculpted and arched phrases, worlds caressed and relished as they are sung, elegant use of portamento all combine to create a character of innate nobility. Even the little laughs traditionally interpolated in “È scherzo od è follia” are balanced exquisitely between singing and laughing, so they sparkle like tiny jewels, while never breaking the vocal line. The death scene is a masterpieces of Verdi singing, with the ascending phrases eloquently handled.
Equally persuasive was tenor’s Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. One cannot forget the nobility of utterance in Bergonzi’s reading of the first line of Alvaro’s “La vita è inferno all’infelice. Invano morte desio”. Immediately, one’s heart broke for the man doomed to wander the earth deprived od both his title and the woman he loves. A number of tenor were singing this role magnificently at the met in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but as soon as Bergonzi began, one felt in the presence of another level of art, that of sheer poetry. And the role remained in his Met repertoire through 1982!
If Verdi became the focus of the tenor’s career, it was by no means the only area in which he excelled. Puccini and verismo operas, such as Andrea Chénier and Pagliacci, provided vehiclesfor Bergonzi’s superb skill with declamato and word coloration. His Chénier Improvviso evoked memories of Beniamino Gigli, every word shaded and cared for, the high B-flat becoming climaxes built to naturally, rather than moment unto themselves. As Caino in Pagliacci, the tenors middle-aged looks and un-theatrical demeanor actually contributed to the credibility of the character, while his singing smoldered and built to a white-hot intensity, never relying on pseudo-verismo yelling.
The bel canto Fach also offered Bergonzi showcases in the form of his charming Nemorino and stunningly sung Esgardo in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Lucia di Lammermoor. Met audiences had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the tenor paired in both of these with Renata Scotto, an artist whose devotion to the poetry in opera mirrors Bergonzi’s. “He was a great singer”, the soprano recalls, “and a great partner in the matter of singing. He could shape a long phrase, had long breath, and he worked very hard, so hard thet he seemed to have no passaggio. You never worried in, for instance, ‘Verranno a te’ [in Lucia]. He had absolute control [that] you could trust completely. And he was always a very good colleague, very serious”.
Joan Sutherland agrees. “I enjoy singing with him so much. When I first sang Luscia with Carlo in 1961, I was on the way up, whereas he was established. He couldn’t have been nicer. I finally got to know him as his wife, Adele, in 1977, when we recorded Adriana Lecouvreur. We loved making that recording, and Richard [Bonynge] and I were always supposed to visit the Bergonzi in their hotel, I due Foscari, in Busseto, but we still haven’t made it. I remember when we did Lucia in Covent Garden in 1985. it was my last series of Lucias in thet house, and there we were, a fifty-eight-years-old grandmother as Lucia and a sixty-years-old Edgatdo. Although the reviews were loaded with superlatives, the world ‘geriatric’ did come up. Well, one night the curtain creaked halfway up at the end of the harp prelude before the fountain scene and got stuck. It was lowered, apologies were made, and the scene began again, this time with the curtains being raised manually. While still hidden from view, I remarked that Carlo and I weren’t the only geriatrics involved! He was wonderful. We joked about our ages, but the years certainly didn’t show in his voice, especially in his wonderful final scene. It was always a great pleasure to work with him.”
A master of Italian vocal style, Bergonzi has made his mark as well in the recital hall, where since the mid-1970s he has been offering stylish, deeply personal rendering of songs by Tosti, Denza, Donaudy and others. Ha has also shared his limitless knowledge with subsequent generation through his master classes and annual courses at Busseto for gifted young singer, some of whom (such as the met’s Francisco Casanova) are practicing what he preaches with impressive results. No one can come under Bergonzi’s spell, as an artist, a teacher or an embodiment of devotion to one’s art, and fail to be enriched. Opera Orchestra of New York’s Eve Queler, with whom Bergonzi has worked frequently, notes that “Bergonzi’s legacy is unique. The first word that come to mind is exuberance – in his manner, his facial expression and his approach to singing. His beautiful voice, feeling for style, good will toward colleagues and particularly his helpfulness to the young singer with whom he has sung in some of our concert, are all a mark of his unique contribution to the opera.”
“I am fond of America and especially New York”, Bergonzi once said. “The public has been good to me”.
Well, Maestro Bergonzi, the pleasure has indeed been ours.