“In braccio a morte”
The recent death of the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi at age 90 brings back many wonderful memories. One of the most striking of these memories is that I never saw a Bergonzi recital that was not attended by from one to several of his younger tenor colleagues, including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They all knew they had something to learn from the master. This situation is by no means common; I cannot recall ever seeing a noted tenor attending a recital or concert by any major tenor other than Bergonzi. The last time I heard this paragon was in Madrid when he was 65 years old. Excepting some strain beginning at B flat, he was the same great singer as ever. Many have testified to the surprisingly high quality of his singing at a New York recital when he was 75! But the core of our memories of this fine artist go back to the years of his happily long prime.
The Italian phrase in my title (“In the arms of death”) comes from the final scene of Verdi’s Un Ballo In Maschera which offered Bergonzi what most admirers considered his finest role. How appropriate that it is by Verdi, as Bergonzi was always particularly associated with the music of his great compatriot. He may have lacked the trumpet-like brilliance and glamour of such as Del Monaco or Corelli, but what he did have to offer more than compensated for that. There is much to be said for such virtues as impeccable legato, sound vocal technique, beautiful tone and fine musicianship, and these were among the qualities that Bergonzi possessed in abundance. Indeed, his solid technique and the wisdom never to push his lovely voice beyond its natural limitations, while still sustaining the necessary stamina and security in the upper register needed for some of Verdi’s heavier roles, helped make Bergonzi a master interpreter even of roles in such Verdi operas as Il Trovatore, La Forza Del Destino and Aida.
Nevertheless, the roles Bergonzi sang in which he was without peer were the more lyrical roles in his repertory. Examples include Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, Alfredo in La Traviata and Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera. Confronted with such artistry as Bergonzi was master of in these and other roles, audiences didn’t seem to care about the absence of qualities he did not possess. True, seeing Bergonzi in opera was not a significantly richer experience than listening to him on records. On the short side, with an unromantic figure and an acting style that consisted of little more than a few stock gestures, Bergonzi’s opera performances often seemed more like a concert in costume, but even the most glamorous of his tenor contemporaries, while offering more theatrical excitement and illusion, could not match Bergonzi’s musical and technical virtues. Still, like the great Jussi Bjorling, who generally shared Bergonzi’s theatrical shortcomings, Bergonzi easily conquered his audiences with the aforementioned vocal virtues. These two fine artists may have been more effective to just listen to, but audiences could never get enough of either of them and flocked to their live performances.
In recital, Bergonzi probably made an even greater effect than he did in opera. His personality came through more naturally in that setting and he really seemed to be enjoying himself. The quality of his singing was like a master class in itself, which explains the presence of such other tenors as the aforementioned. I will never forget the Lincoln Center recital when at the conclusion of his final encore, “Non ti scordar di me”‘ (Don’t forget me), Bergonzi sustained the final note of the song as he strolled offstage waving at the audience and smiling.
He also seemed a man of becoming modesty, a trait not often associated with the tenor breed. Near the end of the 1950’s, a friend of mine was in Rome dining at Alfredo when a young man was asked to sing a song and stood up and did so beautifully. As he made his way back to his table, my friend stopped him and said that he had a wonderful voice, which he should train and try to become a professional. He smiled, thanked her and returned to join his party. Said friend had been shopping for some new records of complete operas that day. Upon examining them more closely later in her hotel room, she saw photos of the gifted “amateur” on all three of them. His name, of course, was Carlo Bergonzi. The recording career which Bergonzi had then recently begun continued for a long time, reaching its peak years from the mid ’60’s to the early ’70’s, which is not to say that his recordings both before and after that period did not have their own excellence.
Readers who have never heard Bergonzi sing, as well as those who now wish to refresh their memories, are advised to seek out the following recordings of complete operas, which are particularly fine examples of his voice and artistry: 1) Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, with Beverly Sills as Lucia, conducted by Thomas Schippers (DGG); 2) Verdi’s La Traviata, with Montserrat Caballe, conducted by Georges Pretre (RCA/BMG); Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, with Leontyne Price, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (RCA/BMG); 4) Verdi’s Don Carlo, with Renata Tebaldi, conducted by Georg Solti (Decca); 5) Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, with Renata Tebaldi, conducted by Lamberto Gardelli (Decca); and 6) Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, with Renata Scotto, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (EMI).
Other tenors have had more powerful or more beautiful voices, others an even better technique or musicality, but none a more satisfying blend of all these qualities. “Non ti scordar di me”, he sang. None of us privileged to hear him ever will.