Elegance personified: Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Manrico in Verdi’s Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, 1959 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]
13 July 1924 – 25 July 2014
When Carlo Bergonzi débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida on 13 November 1956, it was apparent to both the audience and the press that a singer of extraordinary artistic stature had arrived in New York. Even at the age of thirty-two, he possessed both an appealing voice and the technique needed to guide it through a long career in some of the most demanding music ever composed for the tenor voice. His career at the MET would ultimately extend to just one day short of thirty-two years, his final performance being as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on 12 November 1988. In those three decades, he was truly a man for all seasons: a paragon of grace in bel canto, the poise and emotive simplicity of his singing of Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ in L’elisir d’amore have never been surpassed; a more poetic Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème has not been heard in all the years of the MET’s history; the Verdi canon, ranging from the lyric Luisa Miller to the dramatic La forza del destino, has known no more devoted servant. His was a voice of satin and silver that conquered the cavernous spaces of the world’s largest opera houses with projection rather than volume. Even at his most extroverted, he was virtually incapable of vulgarity. As an artist, he was a prince among paupers: as a man, he was an oasis of humility in a vast, ever-expanding desert of arrogance.
As an aspiring young singer, I encountered Mr. Bergonzi on two occasions, both in Italy, when he was in every way more like an encouraging grandfather than one of the finest tenors of his or any generation and perhaps the single greatest Verdi singer of the Twentieth Century. In my experience, brief as it was, he taught not by lecturing and criticizing but by prodding the student to discover the voice of the composer speaking through the music. Not merely in the sense that it is communication of text, singing is a conversation, he suggested—a conversation with the composer, the audience, and oneself. The aural manifestation of this philosophy can be heard in any of Mr. Bergonzi’s recordings, whether made in studio or taped in performance. In the celebrated 1969 Trovatore from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the love of Mr. Bergonzi’s Manrico for Leonora, his fear for Azucena, and above all his respect and affection for Verdi resound across the years. Easy, refulgent top Cs were not his to dispense, but he had complete cognizance of every specific limitation of his voice and employed that knowledge to craft a technique that was founded upon a desire to meet rather than circumvent musical challenges. This he imparted to those fortunate enough to spend an hour or a decade under his tutelage. To him, singing without placing the tone properly is nothing more than tuned shouting, and singing without heart is the greatest offense to which music can be subjected.
Having admired Mr. Bergonzi’s singing since first hearing the DECCA studio recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Renata Tebaldi, Grace Bumbry, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Martti Talvela, I was nonetheless unprepared for my first encounter with the performance that transformed my appreciation for him into unrestrained idolization: the 1970 MET broadcast of Bellini’s Norma. Not heard at the MET since 1956, when the title rôle was sung both in New York and on tour in Philadelphia by Maria Callas, Norma in 1970 had the distinction both of introducing Dame Joan Sutherland’s portrayal of the Druidess to New York and of witnessing the house début of Marilyn Horne. Alongside the powerhouse partnership of Sutherland and Horne, already perfected via DECCA’s 1964 studio recording and the 1967 Covent Garden production of Norma, even the most accomplished Pollione might justifiably have been expected to seem inconsequential. From his first note, however, Mr. Bergonzi’s Pollione exudes confidence, masculinity, and complete comfort with Bellini’s bel canto idiom. He ducks the written top C in ‘Meco all’atar di Venere’—as do most tenors in staged performances and which a number of those who attempted the note should have done—but phrases the aria with all the grandeur of imperial Rome. His burly swagger in the cabaletta, ‘Me protegge, me difende,’ is all the more effective for being unexpected, and he brings fire and finesse to the great duet with Adalgisa and the monumental trio that brings down the curtain on Act One. He matches Sutherland note for golden note in ‘In mia man,’ and the dignity of his voicing of Pollione’s lines in the opera’s finale heightens the impact of the tragic dénouement. Before hearing this performance, I liked Mr. Bergonzi’s singing: after hearing it, I longed to sing like him.
Mr. Bergonzi was not a perfect singer and was the first to admit it. He was also an artist for whom perfection was judged by achieving connections with music and audiences rather than by unerring executions of notes. If a singer’s legacy can be assessed by the affection he inspires in an opera lover who never heard him sing ‘live,’ this opera lover’s adoration of his artistry proves that Carlo Bergonzi was one of the greatest artists ever to make the world’s opera houses his home.
His Rodolfo was a poet, but his singing was true poetry: Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, 1958 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]