26 July 2014

Carlo Bergonzi, 90, One of the Preeminent Verdian Tenors of the Twentieth Century, Has Died

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Parma, Italy, July 13, 1924 – Milan, Italy July 26, 2014 

Carlo Bergonzi, 90, one of the preeminent Verdian tenors of the twentieth century, has died. 

No onstage fuss, no offstage drama, no career-boosting gimmicks, no media hype: when Carlo Bergonzi appeared before an audience, he had come to sing, pure and simple, and apparently that was enough. Bergonzi possessed a distinctive tenor that could generate ample vocal excitement even as he impressed connoisseurs with his cultivated sense of style and refined musical manners. He dominated the international opera stage for decades, a much-loved singer who commanded a fiercely loyal fan base even during an era particularly rich in lirico-spinto tenors.

Bergonzi's long career began during the twilight days of the great Beniamino Gigli in the late 1940s and concluded nearly fifty-five years later, just as Jonas Kaufmann was about to launch his rise to stardom. In between those two formidable tenors the competition included Mario Del Monaco, Jussi Björling, Giuseppe di Stefano, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Nicolai Gedda, Alfredo Kraus, José Carreras, Plácido Domingo, Jon Vickers, Fritz Wunderlich, Luciano Pavarotti — the list goes on, and Bergonzi stood tall in this company. Indeed, whenever the subject turned to Verdi, the heroic tenor roles of the composer's middle-period operas especially, some preferred Bergonzi to all the others.

Bergonzi's voice was built upward from a firmly grounded foundation that retained its burnished luster and smooth projection throughout its range, an anchored solidity that perhaps owed something to the young singer's early training as a baritone. Indeed, Bergonzi began his career in 1947 with such classic baritone roles as Figaro in Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia and Belcore in Donizetti's Elisir d'Amore before an idly vocalized high C in his dressing room one evening convinced him that he had been on the wrong track. The self-taught new tenor quickly emerged, made his second debut as Andrea Chénier in Bari on January 12, 1951, and never looked back.

Unfortunately, no recordings exist of Bergonzi during his brief career as a baritone, but in 1951, only three months after his vocal realignment, Radio Italiana invited the tenor to perform roles in several Verdi operas commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. Simon Boccanegra, with Bergonzi as Gabriele Adorno, was released internationally on the Cetra label a year later, and collectors of complete opera recordings during the early days of LP heard a new voice that would soon become familiar in opera houses the world over.

It would be pointless to pretend that those first examples of Bergonzi's singing represent the finished artist he was shortly to become, but most of the basics were already in place. The singer's baritone origins are betrayed only in the slight husky burr of the voice, an attractive trait that Bergonzi would eventually polish and integrate into his own unmistakable vocal personality. Even if Bergonzi never fully developed the ringing squillo high Cs that came more naturally to some of his tenor contemporaries, the top of his voice would soon fill out with ample resonance and increased security. Bergonzi's patrician command of color, dynamics and phrasing never left him, even after he had reached his seventies. By then the upper register had become less reliable, but Bergonzi's bewitchingly shaped and subtly modulated interpretations, especially of such signature songs as "Non ti scordar di me," could still leave an audience in tears.

Like all young singers, Bergonzi had dues to pay, and he hardly stepped into the limelight overnight. He did, however, make that all-important debut at La Scala in 1953, just shy of his twenty-ninth birthday, in the title role of Mas'Aniello, a new opera by Jacopo Napoli. He was assigned more esoterica, by Ildebrando Pizzetti, Ludovico Rocca and others, but soon opera managements realized that this classically trained voice and temperament would be put to better use in the nineteenth-century Italian repertory, and contemporary works were set aside. Even at that, Bergonzi once reckoned that he had performed seventy-one roles during his career, all learned on his own at the keyboard, thanks to five hard years of teenage piano study at the Parma Conservatory.

London first heard Bergonzi during the same year as his Scala debut — as Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino at the Stoll Theatre — and his long romance with American opera audiences began in 1955 at the Chicago Opera, followed a year later by his Metropolitan Opera debut as Radamès, the first of twenty-one roles he would sing with the company in a run that lasted until 1988. From Barcelona to Berlin, Buenos Aires and Vienna, Bergonzi was soon an international figure. Although the great Verdi roles continued to be his major concern, he hardly neglected the important tenor heroes of Puccini, Donizetti, Mascagni, Bellini, Leoncavallo and Ponchielli. He also recorded prolifically, complete operas as well as a compilation of Verdi arias that includes all the composer's major solo scenes for tenor.

Few seemed to mind that Bergonzi was no actor; his economical gestures seldom exceeded an outstretched arm for dramatic emphasis. Generalized dignity and an appealing emotional warmth made up for much, not to mention those expressive spinning phrases floated on a seemingly limitless supply of breath. All that and more could still be savored at his Indian-summer concert recitals after he left the Met stage.

How appropriate that Bergonzi long ago chose to settle his family in Verdi's hometown of Busseto, not far from where the tenor himself grew up. No Verdi pilgrimage to the tiny village would be complete without a stop at Bergonzi's own cozy restaurant and inn, named "I Due Foscari" after one of the first Verdi operas he ever sang. It's still open for business and, one imagines, remains as elegant, welcoming  and  heartwarming as the singer himself. spacer 


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