“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.