I. The career
I.1. Beginnings (1924-1958)
Time: a lush Sunday afternoon in July 1968. Place: campeggio (camping) Romeo e Giulietta on the main road between Brescia-Peschiera-Verona 10 kilometers from Verona .
At the end of the camping is a small road. To the left stands a small tent from an American army-warehouse. To the right stands a big luscious tent. Two Flemings are in front of the small tent, an elderly Dutch couple is seated before the big tent and watching that one young Fleming who cannot stay seated for ten seconds, who is always looking at the sky and incessantly muttering. When he starts cursing, the elderly Dutchman comes over and says: “Please, don’t be so angry because your countryman has just lost the Tour de France against my countryman and that in the last race.” The young Fleming replies: “I don’t care a damn who won the Tour and if it was that Dutchman then he surely used some stuff. But look at the sky, at the clouds gathering, at the rumbling sound far North in the Alps . It’s going to rain this evening. “
Answers the Dutchman: “It’s not going to rain. Anyway that won’t hurt.”
Replies the Fleming: “That’s disaster as this will be my only chance to hear Carlo Bergonzi.”
Well, it didn’t’ rain that evening. Moreover the distant light flashes in the sky made an appropriate company to that unforgettable ‘Il Trovatore’. When Bergonzi started his ‘Deserto sulla terra’ my not very-musical friend sat up, muttering “Now that’s beauty”. For the rest it was one of the performances which were a regular feature in the arena during the sixties and the seventies when everybody took those now legendary casts for granted. Leyla Gencer sang in her well known style spinning out clearly audible and nevertheless genuine pianissimo’s in the huge open air; Piero Cappuccilli sang with that dark-brown voice that all great Verdi-baritones have and encored “Il balen”. And Bergonzi was Bergonzi: stylish though not foppish, showing his unequalled legato, his trill in “Ah si ben mio”. And of course he encored “Di quella pira” in the well-known Bergonzi-variant: waiting till the chorus had finished the last “All’alarmi” before sailing to a high B (never a C in a live performance).
When we drove back to our campeggio I was happy because at last I had heard one of my two youth idols and at twenty-four I thought this would be my first and last chance. Little did I know that there would be many happy returns. Though my parents were distinctly proletarian there had always been good music on the radio. (There was no money for records). One of the few good souvenirs of my extremely poor grandmother had been that evening in Oostende when as a poor serving girl she stood at the entrance of the Oostende Kursaal gaping at the rich flocking in. And as it was a warm night the doors were never closed and she could hear the recital by that signor Caruso. My father was an avid filmgoer and as a youngster he never missed a film with Schmidt, Tauber, Kiepura, Martini, Tibbett (“chicken-head” he called him) etc. I was reared upon a healthy dose of Mario Lanza. I was the only boy in my high school vaguely interested in classical singers but the thing that clenched it was the opening concert of the Brussels World Fair with young Franco Corelli: that was in my ears even more impressive than Lanza. Then consumer society at last made its entrance in poor Flanders and material life improved somewhat at home. First there was a record player, then the small tape-recorder (so important, as my father had to work a whole day to buy one LP) and at last the City Record Library of Mechelen, my home town. I asked the library to buy that record from a new young promising Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi so that I could tape it. It complied and I was so impressed that I duly taped it at 19cm. per second, double-track. (Lesser gods like Gigli, Björling and Del Monaco only got the single track 9 cm. per second-treatment). That Record Library was part of a big well-provided library that had record magazines in four languages. Every month I screened them with an eye for my two particular favourites. At that time I was still more of a recital boy than a complete performance guy and at last with Franco Corelli I was well provided. Carlo Bergonzi was quite another matter. There was that formidable début-recital and that was all there was for many years (till my discovery during that same Italy-trip in 68. More of that later. I started writing to The Gramophone etc. I got polite replies though my letters begging for more Bergonzi and less Kenneth McKellar on Decca were never published.
And then there was the consecration on that balmy July night in Verona .
Bergonzi, Carlo: tenore italiano, nato a Parma il 27 febbraio 1931. That’s the statement in Rodolfo Celetti’s important ‘Le grandi voce’ and this would mean that the tenor made his début at seventeen years of age, a little bit improbable. Mind you it is quite possible that this information was given by the tenor or his publicity agency in the time-honoured way of making the prima donna or primo tenore a few years younger so that there would be no references to old age at the first appearances of vocal weaknesses. Anyway this is not the last time we’ll meet Mr. Bergonzi’s somewhat weak handling of facts. In reality the tenor was born on the 13th of July 1924 in the hamlet of Vidalenzo, a few kilometres from Verdi’s villa at Sant’ Agata and at the same distance from Busseto; also well known from Verdi’s life and still one of the most charming tourists-free places in Italy. Much is made from this, far too much. How many times has one read that Bergonzi comes from Parma , the region that produced Verdi and Toscanini as well, thereby implying that this same air made Bergonzi into such a paragon of stylish tenors. In reality Parma has had its share of bawlers as well as any other Italian region and many years later the Parmesane clearly didn’t like Bergonzi’s high B-pianissimo in ‘Celeste Aida’, preferring the usual stentorian end. The Bergonzi’s were not well off. He was an only child. His father was a cheese maker in a small factory in a region where family business is still strong. But in the early thirties ordinary Italians still loved and knew their opera’s (though most of them liked Carlo Buti far more than any opera tenor). So it was no surprise that father Bergonzi took his son to a performance of Trovatore and here the fun starts. In Helena Matheopoulos’ “Divo” he is six years of age and the next day is found in the family kitchen singing ‘Di quella pira’ using pasta-utensils as a sword. In Renzo Allegri’s “Il Prezzo del successo” he is sixteen, a somewhat more credible age, though still using the same sword.
Bergonzi left elementary school at eleven, a not uncommon feat in the thirties. Later on in his career the tenor would pay a heavy price for this lack of formal education. He never studied a foreign language and is not able to speak one fluently. It was his and still more our loss that after a few French-travesty Carmens at the Met in 1957 he was never again asked to sing another role in the original language in the French repertoire till his Werther in Miami in 1973. Indeed during all of his many farewell recitals ( e.g. the formidable evening in 1996 in Carnegie Hall, luckily video-taped by an amateur) he still introduced everything in Italian, and that after a career of 41 years in the U.S.
The Italy Bergonzi grew up in, was an unhappy country, desperately poor and getting poorer every year. The first stage of fascism whereby the party still showed a civilised face though resorting to a lot of cruelties behind the scenes, was almost over. Mussolini like most dictators was not very well versed in economics and he steered his country on a strong course of autarchy so that Italy could be strong on its own. That rejection of free trade was disastrous as Italy didn’t have the means to follow such a course and wages and standards of living plummeted. People started to grumble and fascism showed more clearly its ugly face: less tolerance for the inside enemy and on the look-out for an external enemy so that military glory could compensate for empty bellies. When Bergonzi was twelve, fascist Italy made its first jump: the conquest of backwards Ethiopia (Ferruccio Tagliavini was one of the conquerors). At that time young Bergonzi was already at work in the same cheese factory where his father laboured. That’s where he laboured for many years. There is the well known story of young Bergonzi always singing during his work while his colleagues listened to him; one day the boss stopped him and told him either to work or to leave and start a singing career. In ‘Divo’ and to Giorgio Gualerzi in Opera Magazine he tells he was fourteen, in another interview it was sixteen; a more probable age as there was a chance that at sixteen he had the beginnings of an adult voice. But in both pieces he tells that he chose singing. In reality he kept quiet and chose the small cheese factory though he told Gualerzi that he also worked as a baker and a truck driver. However he took some advice and even some lessons at whatever real age this incident took place. He had already studied with a certain maestro Pisaroni (piano and elementary singing) and now asked for advice to the provincial baritone Edmondo Grandini who was currently singing Rigoletto at Busseto. Though Grandini is not in the Kutsch-Riemens-lexicon of great singers, Grandini had quite a respectable career in the twenties and thirties in the better Italian theatres. In ‘Divo’ Grandini gives Bergonzi a lot of lessons and takes him to Brescia for further studies and has him even dabble in some anti-fascist activities. Allegri in his book tells the far more probable story that the young singer stayed at home where otherwise his small salary would have been sorely missed though his father allowed him to take some private lessons so that he could take entrance examinations at the Parma Conservatory. He finally got in and combined his studies with his regular job at home. Being poor, only his feet or public transport could bring him from home to Parma . He studied piano, score-reading and took singing lessons. But in the summer of 42 nineteen-year old Bergonzi got another job: soldier in the unhappy Italian army that was losing on all fronts and that was regarded by its German allies as a liability. Bergonzi was a flack-soldier in Mantua but he soon got ill and was sent to the military hospital. In the meantime the Allies had invaded Sicily . Mussolini was deposited by his own party and his successor Marshall Badoglio asked for an armistice in September 1943 One month later Italy declared war on Germany . The Germans occupied as much of Italy as they could and rounded up many Italian soldiers as prisoner of war. Most of Bergonzi’s companions saw things deteriorate from day to day and fled before the Germans arrived but feverous Bergonzi was caught in his bed and he spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war-camp not far from Salzburg (Alan Blyth in his sleeve notes with Bergonzi’s Decca-recital tells the nonsensical story that he was interned as a pacifist). There he was very unhappy like most Italian soldiers as conditions concerning food and health care were often not on the same level for those “traitors to the former common cause” as for the Anglo-Saxon prisoners. In that camp Carlo Bergonzi composed his up to now only published composition which can be found on his mystery LP. As every Italian soldier in these circumstances he pined for home and what other song could he write besides “Alla mamma”? His camp was liberated by the Russians. Bergonzi and his fellow-prisoners didn’t trust them and they immediately walked off towards the Americans. It was a 100-km walk and Bergonzi drank some unboiled water, caught typhoid fever and when the Americans finally sent him home he didn’t weigh 50 kilos. For several weeks there was fear that he would die but then his young constitution slowly recuperated and he came back to health. There was one great consolation. When he returned he met a former neighbourhood girl who had now blossomed into young womanhood: Adele. “She was the first girl I met after the war. She became my wife and she is the only woman I have ever looked at” he proudly declared in an interview with Opera News. With his health back, he returned to the Boito Conservatory at Parma to resume his studies.
Ettore Campogalliani is his best known teacher, a man with whom Tebaldi, Scotto, Raimondi, Pavarotti etc. also took lessons. Campogalliani taught him correct breathing and pronounced him to be a promising lyric baritone. Bergonzi accepted the verdict. He later on didn’t fuzz about it and readily admits that at that early age it was not easy for his teachers to find his real tessitura. So he duly studied baritone parts as Giovanni Zenatello and Vasco Campagnano had done before him and as Bruno Prevedi would do ten years later. He auditioned for Tullio Serafin at La Scala in 47 and the great old man also thought him to be a baritone. In Allegri’s book and in the 1978-interview with Giorgio Gualerzi, Bergonzi tells the story that he made his début in August 48 at the Teatro dell’Oratoria in Varedo near Milan in Il Barbiere. Accompanied by an uncle on this particular hot day, his whole fee went down to transport and drinks. They even had to return home for a few kilometres on foot. And then Bergonzi speaks of his real début, the well-known Il Barbiere in Lecce . In an interview with Bruno Baudissone Varedo takes place in 1947 The same uncle and walk on foot are present in an interview with Opera News in April 196O. This time it is once again 1948 and the organization is in the hands of a Prisoner’s Association with whom he had shared many difficult days in Germany (his fee was $3.2O). But whatever is the truth it’s always a début in a title role. One wonders if that ‘début’ isn’t the result of Bergonzi’s or Decca’s Publicity Department imagination? When a young tenor’s first recital record appears and it is a well known fact that he has been singing baritone for three years it is better publicity to let him start with a title role.
Nevertheless there are the chronologies and they tell another story. There is first a Bohème (or a series of Bohèmes) in August 47 at the arena Argentina in Catania in Sicily with only Silvio Costa Lo Giudice as Rodolfo being a name that still has some meaning. There is still some discussion if the unknown Luigi Dimitri or the at that time still more unknown Carlo Bergonzi sang Schaunard but in all probability it was the later tenor who took the small unglamorous part. And there is no doubt that in the four performances of Bohème in November 47 at the Teatro Bellini (also in Catania ) it was the well-known baritone Mario Boriello who took the role of Marcello, relegating Bergonzi to Schaunard. It is strange that Bergonzi never spoke of these performances as at the Bellini Renata Tebaldi and Arrigo Pola were the leading singers.
The Italy wherein Bergonzi started out to make a career was quite a different country than it is nowadays. Large parts of small and big cities were destroyed and not only big theatres as La Scala but also a lot of smaller ones suffered and that’s where in pre-war days youngsters could earn money and experience. Transportation was hell as there were not many roads and a lot of them in shatters. Anyway most singers were too poor to have a car and had to take the train to reach their destination, hoping that the eternal delays (owing to the destruction of rails plus bad management) wouldn’t last too long. Communications were difficult. Young poor singers didn’t own a telephone and therefore most lived in sorry circumstances in and around Milan . That’s where the important agents were and the aspiring singers duly made their rounds in the hope of snatching a contract for one or another stagione in the province. The Italians themselves were deeply divided. After his deposition Mussolini had set up a client republic in the North of Italy and his thugs mercilessly killed their enemies. Communist partisans replied with the same violence and at the liberation they murdered thousands of fascists or so-called fascists without even the semblance of a trial. The king was ousted after a referendum. When after the first after-war elections the Christian-democrats came to power many communists hid their weapons, waiting for the orders of Moscow to grab power in the way communists had killed democracy in Czechoslovakia . Nevertheless there were a few redeeming features. The U.S. didn’t stand idle and poured a lot of dollars into the country as Marshall-help so that the Mediterranean ports wouldn’t fall in communist hands. Many Italo-Americans remembered they had family in the old world and helped out as well. And then there was opera. Renata Tebaldi once told me that at the outset of her career there were about 260 theatres to be found in Italy . I duly nodded and kept silent but as chronologies become ever more precise it is clear that the lady was right. Small towns with often not more than ten, twenty thousands inhabitants had their theatre (often conversed in a movie-house after the opera-stagione). The elder generation wanted to pick up their lives and forget a nasty war and one way to do so was by once more making the operatic season the crux of social life. So in these lean years operatic life soon took a new flight. and there was ample opportunity for young promising singers. Most came from small towns, (almost never from the agrarian regions), most belonged to families with a lot of artisans or blue-collar workers. Bourgeois-families wouldn’t allow their sons and definitely not their daughters to make a career in dire circumstances where morality was deemed to be lax (Del Monaco and Olivero were exceptions). Singing was one of the few outlets for the children of the lower classes as a step forward: they knew that most of them wouldn’t become rich but at last there was a small chance that you’d do better by singing than by staying in a cheese-factory for the rest of your life. The problem was the amount of candidates. Due to a soon to be revoked fascist law, singers had to register. Therefore we know that after the war there were 250 soprano’s available in the category “soprano lirico” (Are there nowadays 25 Italian lyric sopranos?)
So competition for an assignment was stiff. Bergonzi had married his Adele and lived in a very modest apartment in Cusano Milanino. He duly made the rounds of the agents but he was not overwhelmed with work. His was a rather small lyric baritone in a time that Italy abounded with big booming voices like Becchi and Tagliabue. Moreover his high notes where not very good and he regularly cracked on F and F sharp, necessary notes if one wants to sing Rigoletto not as Verdi wrote it but as Italian tradition demanded. Much of Bergonzi’s early career is still uncharted as chronologies from those very small towns are almost inexistent. By his own admission to Pier Maria Paoletti we know that most of his performances took place in small theatres in southern Italy at very low fees Only when Bergonzi had the luck to be engaged in a bigger theatre or when there was a big star in the cast (mostly down hill) do we find traces of his activities. We meet him in Parma in Elisir with Tagliavini in 48, with Schipa in Elisir in Cremona in 49, once more with Schipa in 50 in some real small provincial theatres and once with Gigli in Bohème in Ferrara the same year. He understood that his would be a small-time career, fraught with lots of begging for parts in exchange for little money As his wife was pregnant he more and more thought of giving up a career in opera.
“Das aha-Erlebnis” came on the 12th of October 1950 . Once more he was in the company of a has-been (Galliano Masini in one of his last performances before he retired) in a minor Theatre (the Goldoni in Livorno ) when he did some vocal exercises after a bad first act. Singing scales he reached a high C and in that same instant he realized what was wrong with his vocal production. He was a tenor, not a baritone and he was always cracking on notes that were in the passaggio for a tenor. That was the moment he gave himself a last chance, knowing well that more than eighty percent of all male voices are bass or baritone. Therefore any decent tenor could earn a living in Italy or even abroad where an impeccable Italian name was still an advantage. Bergonzi didn’t have the money or the time to take it easy. He couldn’t pay for the hire of a piano or a teacher so he did it on his own. He used a diapason, that small instrument that only gives a perfect A. So each morning he gave himself an A and started out from there: lightening his voice, gaining a quarter of a tone each day. He told his wife that he soon had to prepare for a very high baritone part because she had made a remark that he was sounding like a tenor. As her delivery came near, he sent her in the old tradition to her mother and he remained in his small apartment, He could now easily study tenor roles. He used recordings of Gigli and Pertile and thanks to a friend he could practise a few hours a day at a piano. He studied ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’, ‘Chénier’ and ‘Aida’ and once more did the rounds of the agents, auditioning for a part.
We now look upon the late forties, early fifties as the last moments when “that once inexhaustible breed, the Italian tenor, existed in abundance”. Now that the war was five years over, transport in Italy itself was more or less OK. Moreover travel-restrictions which made international opera life so difficult just after the war had been lifted. And the younger and even not-so-younger generation of Italian tenors was once again conquering the world; mostly the American hemisphere where big money was to be earned. So the Tagliavinis, Di Stefanos , Del Monacos etc. had not disappeared completely from the peninsula but during the seasons of the Met or the Colon the main Italian theatres had to do with second rank tenors. And the better provincial theatres had to look out for younger singers who otherwise would only have gotten their chance much later. That explains the fact that Bergonzi immediately got an offer to make his tenor-début in the not-too-despised-theatre of Piacenza but that was far too close to home for the tenor. ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ in the very fine Teatro Petruzelli in Bari , the capital of Puglia , he readily accepted. The Petruzelli had quite a reputation and all-good second rank singers had performed over there. (It was a movie-theatre when I visited it in 1988 and it was set on fire by maffiosi in October 1991 as a warning that they wanted to be in on every major building construction.)
So, nervous as a cat, he made his début on the 12th of January 1951 . By that time his leading lady (Olivero or Petrella, he doesn’t remember any more) was ill and the opera was switched to ‘Andrea Chénier’. He told Allegri that after the first act he received the most wonderful telegram of his life, announcing the birth of his eldest son Maurizio (as the tenor hero is called in his originally scheduled début opera). The review in the local newspaper was good though not overwhelming. Bergonzi gave a copy to his wife and she made fun of the critic who had written of Bergonzi as Chénier instead of Carlo Gérard, the role he was supposed to have sung in her eye. That was the moment he confessed. One wonders how much truth there is in this story? On one hand wives were not supposed to meddle with their husband’s careers in the late forties, on the other hand they decided the name of their children (usually the same as il nonno-the greatfather) and I very much doubt Mrs. Bergonzi thought Maurizio to be a baritone role in one or another opera. Making a début was the easy part. Building a respectable career was more difficult as competition was stiff. Take this small list: all of Italian tenors who made their début between 1946 and 1953, all of them still known with collectors as they all recorded
1946: Di Stefano, Campagnano (as a tenor), Misciano, Penno, Picchi
1947: Poggi, Raimondi, Valletti,
1948: Berdini, Savio
1949: Campora, Puma, Babini, Savio
1951: Ferraro, Corelli, Bergonzi, Monti, Zampighi, Zampieri, Zambruno
1952: Borso, Loforese
And then there are Antonioli, Bardi, Gavarini, Gentile, Nobile, Romano, Scarlini, Sarri, Turrini, Barrati, Gismondi, Formichini, Ventura, Vicentini, Vertecchi; most artists belonging to that generation as well but not worth an entry in the recent still fault-ridden Kutsch/Riemens.
Anyway it was a challenge for the new tenor but for once he got lucky.
1951 was the Verdi-year (the composer had died fifty years before). All over Italy and in the rest of the world there were Verdi-celebrations and performances of operas which often had been neglected for quite a time. He auditioned at RAI (Italian public radio) and there was something in his voice that got him a contract: not for one of the big Verdi’s of course (Filippeschi got Aida, Lauri-Volpi got Trovatore and Luisa Miller, Soler got Ballo in Maschera)
But an appearance as Carlo in Verdi’s forgotten Giovanni d’Arco on March 26th was an auspicious radio-début, moreover as Italy ‘s finest young soprano Renata Tebaldi sang the title role and Rolando Panerai was father Giacomo. This is the first live Bergonzi-recording we know off (there is no recording of his baritone-past or anyway that’s what he told me). The voice is still extremely young, there is a small bleat and with the hindsight of his baritone past one hears how there is a tenor voice struggling but not quite succeeding in coming out. But there is already a hint of great things to come; the fine Verdi-legato in his solo’s and his soft plangent singing of the duo at the end of the first act, maybe still stronger in intent than in reality but what a difference with most Italian tenors of the day. This Giovanni d’Arco was a well-known pirate-recording with Tebaldi-and Bergonzi-fans but it was never put commercially on the market unless much later. In June 1951 he got the role of Canio in another radio-broadcast. He sang at short notice as another tenor was indisposed. Later that year he sang the now well-known performances of Simon Boccanegra and I Due Foscari as well before RAI-radio. He also got one plum: Don Alvaro, a role that most superstitious Italian tenors at that time heartily despised as it was rumoured to bring them ill luck. Originally all these performances were meant to be just what they were: radio-broadcasts but with the advent of LP, there was a need of complete opera’s. The Decca- and RCA-recordings were definitely superior in sound- and artistic quality but in still poor Italy they were expensive. So RAI’s own record company Cetra, brought out some of these broadcasts, often in muffled sound. Bergonzi’s 1951-Forza is the only one of his early efforts that’s still hidden in the vaults of RAI. Boccanegra shows the same promises and same defects of Giovanna d’Arco and Pagliacci shows us the other be it somewhat lesser-known face of Bergonzi. In this performance he proves that he can bawl, sob and roar in the best provincial tradition. Live tapes will later on prove that during performances with a lot of sympathizers and no critics in the theatre, he will resort to that kind of singing whereby he leaves his stylish reputation sometimes in his dressing room. The radio-broadcast of I Due Foscari (not yet on records) was discussed by Andrew Porter in the December-issue of Opera Magazine 1952 where he noted that “Carlo Bergonzi was a tenor who seemed to have modelled himself on Lauri-Volpi; his voice has the same robust ring, and also the same tendency to break up the phrases as Lauri-Volpi has recently shown.” There is indeed a vague resemblance with the elder tenor though we now know that Bergonzi would soon remedy these deficiencies. The same critic was responsible for the biggest “canard” about the tenor’s repertory. Reviewing a performance of ‘La Favorita’ in the August issue 53 of Opera Magazine, he asked for a rebroadcast of ‘Il Duca d’Alba’ “with Carlo Bergonzi in ringing voice”. For almost thirty years Bergonzi-fans quizzed each other incessantly searching for that elusive tape. In 1981 the mystery was over with the appearance of Gualerzi’s “50 anni di opera lirica alla RAI” which stated clearly that those “ringing tones” belonged to Amedeo Berdini and not to Bergonzi.
Young singers have to eat and therefore tend to accept roles which later on they discard for bread and butter-opera’s. Often one regrets that no tapes are available from those performances as these singers later on never tackle these roles anymore. Moreover the fifties were the last decade that Italy still tried to live up to its centuries-old traditions by creating new opera’s, vainly looking for successors for Giordano and Cilea, the two great old men who had survived the war. Young aspiring tenors had to go through this routine as the real stars didn’t think of ruining their voices on the new often unmelodious declamatory music. Therefore next to Ballo’s in Brescia and Mefistofele’s in Rome which would stay in his repertoire, 1952 saw Bergonzi in Ifigenia conducted by composer Pizetti himself. The roles we would have liked to hear would of course been his Faust ( Bari and Pisa ) and maybe most of all his Laca in Jenufa. That last opera earned him a first mention in Opera Magazine, simply stating that he was not at ease in this repertory. There were other strange opera’s in his repertoire as well; Le astuzie di Bertoldo (Ferrari-Trecate), L’Oro (Pizzetti), Dibuk and Monte Ivnor (Rocca).
1953 was an important year in his career. For the first time there were no long gaps between assignments though there was still time enough to learn new roles and to travel slowly to one’s destination as in those days operatic casts were still assembled only a few months’ time in advance. Three occasions stand out. In March 1953 he made his début at La Scala: the beginning of a difficult and ultimately frustrating relationship. No bigger name could be found to create the role of Mas’Aniello in the same opera by the now forgotten Jacopo Napoli, third-prize winner in a Verdi-competition for new opera’s. (One of Napoli ‘s seven opera’s) The names of the singers were hardly mentioned in what was simply called a mediocrity that only lasted for four performances. The management didn’t ask him to return in an opera better suited to his talents. His London-début wasn’t much of a commercial success either. An agency (Daubeny) presented a “Grand Season of Italian Opera” at the now defunct Stoll Theatre in Kingsway. Most singers were young and promising but the performances were poorly attended as there were no real big stars among them. Nowadays the names of Virginia Zeani, Gianni Raimondi, Paolo Silveri, Mary Curtis, Carlo Tagliabue, Ugo Savarese make one sit up and take notice . Critics were sometimes severe though Bergonzi was singled out as giving one of the best Italian tenor performances since the war by Harold Rosenthal. More than forty years later critic John Steane would write that at that performance for the first time he heard an Italian tenor singing on stage the way his gramophone records had taught him. The problem was that none of the big shots of the London recording industry or at Covent Garden took any notice and so this stagione ended on a non sequitur. The third venture went somewhat better. He was the main tenor in a series of performances at the Colon in Buenos Aires . Gone were the heydays of Argentine economy in the after war boom, whereby the Colon could invite at will. Now with Juan Peron and his wild ideas on economy, there was place only for one absolute star; Renata Tebaldi, seconded by acceptable companions like Giuseppe Taddei, Ebe Stignani at the end of her career, Jerome Hines and Carlo Bergonzi. He made his début in a new role for him, Don Carlos and was not an outstanding success. Things were better in Tosca and Aida, though all interest focused on Tebaldi at her best. There is a live tape of Tosca, the first hint of the tenor’s singing after his RAI-performances in 1951. There is still a small bleat but the ring is there too though the sound is still a little bit constricted. One has the impression of a big voice until the moment he is confronted with Tebaldi and Taddei, where one hears that they possess more decibels. One fears a bit that he is still in a league too heavy for the instrument, moreover as he pushes it unmercifully on ” Vittoria ‘ vittoria !!!’ in the hope of milking the audience for applause that comes to him for a few seconds.
1954 is a year of consolidation, giving his art in the better provincial theatres, acquiring the reputation of a reliable performer, not-a-tantrum-throwing-star, conservative in his outlook on the theatre. It’s a pity that the only well recorded legacy of that year is his RAI-broadcast of L’Incoronazione, an opera that you don’t associate him with. One longs to have tapes of his performances of Adriana (with Olivero) and Loreley with Cerquetti, operas he would never sing or record elsewhere (his 1988 recording of Adriana is a travesty). Slowly, oh so slowly, his career makes a turn for the better though there is always the whiff of “he has sung too and he is not difficult or expensive”. A début at the San Carlo is still a consecration, though a real big name would never accept to bow as Pinkerton for the first time. The rare live tape reveals something strange. After a well-sung Addio fiorito asil in the best Naples-tradition (a few light and one heavy sob, the last high note clung to as long as his breathing permits), his performance is over. He is not allowed to sing his three Butterfly-cries at the end of the opera. In those days there were no jets waiting for a tenor who is urgently wanted elsewhere, so it is highly probable that the prima-donna forbade him to have the last word in Madama Butterfly and he had to comply. The prima-donna was Rina Gigli, a not very distinguished lirico who unexpectedly developed into a very fine lirico-spinto and then was refused by theatre-managements who had detested her father’s high-handed tactics and now could take their revenge after the tenor’s retirement. Only at the San Carlo did they realize what a good household soprano she was. At last La Scala offered him a few performances in a bread-and-butter-opera, though of course there was a little snag as Giuseppe Di Stefano sang the first (to be reviewed) performances of La Forza.
At the end of 1955 his great opportunity came and he probably didn’t realize it at the time as he was once again somewhat engaged as a fifth wheel. The young bosses of the once more re-opened Chicago Lyric produced an unheard feat. For their short five-week season Lawrence Kelly and Carol Fox went for the very top: Callas alternating with Tebaldi; Di Stefano alternating with Björling and for good measure they threw Gobbi and Simionato in as well. Those names didn’t suffice to sing the planned twelve different opera’s and therefore they needed a few younger and far cheaper singers for alternative evenings to flesh out the season after the big shots had left. That’s where Bergonzi, Carteri and Cerquetti came in handy. Audience interest indeed dropped after Tebaldi and Callas left. Bergonzi had specially prepared two new roles which he would never repeat and we are still without recordings of his interpretations of Luigi in Il Tabarro (a pity) and Avito in L’amore dei tre re (a shame, as he probably was already ripe enough an artist to make something special of this difficult role). Critics stressed his good limpid singing and always added that he wasn’t a romantic hero at all. He went home, not knowing that his career had taken a turn for the better. His big engagement for the next year was at last a new production in La Scala. And the snag ? One of the rare Verdi-operas where the tenor is of secondary importance: Simon Boccanegra. In the small review in Opera Magazine he was not even mentioned by name though it is possible he was ill as another obscure tenor sang the first performance. Then it was to Lisbon and the better Italian provincial theatres. He was in Livorno for a series of Andrea Chéniers when he got an unexpected visitor: a representative from heaven itself. The Metropolitan in the person of its European representative Roberto Bauer, asked him if his American passport was still valid. It is still not entirely clear what brought about his big chance. He was not announced before the season began and as always there was a snag. Bergonzi himself told some people that he had become more or less a protégé of Mario Del Monaco, who clearly preferred to groom his successor himself and meek, stolid Bergonzi was a good choice whom Del Monaco understandably favoured over Franco Corelli who was busy upstaging him at La Scala. According to Bergonzi , Del Monaco surrendered performances of Aida and Il Trovatore. (For the whole complicated story: read my upcoming article on Bergonzi at the Met) It is also probable that general manager Bing knew his name from the Chicago season and though he had not heard him, relied on Bauer’s advice who favoured Bergonzi. Another motive of Bing may be the fact he decided to look for an acceptable tenor who wouldn’t disturb the important upcoming début of Antonietta Stella. Less than three weeks before, Callas had made her début and Bing always liked his ‘monstres sacrées’ to have the feeling that they were not unique and could be replaced if necessary. Callas, Milanov and Tebaldi would get competition from a lady who was at that moment almost as big a star (literally too) in Italy . Bing engaged Stella for Aida and Trovatore, operas in which the tenor-lead was pledged for the rest of the season to Kurt Baum, an authentic scene-stealer who wouldn’t be above holding his strong high notes extra-long to make live difficult for a newcomer. So Bing looked for an alternative tenor who would be quite happy to play second fiddle to the new prima donna and that’s where Bergonzi came in. And so Stella and Bergonzi made their début on 13th of November 1956. The soprano was a success with the public, the tenor with the critics, anyway more or less. The cavernous space of the old Met was still one size too big for the tenor in these two roles.but there was fair warning of great things to come. Kolodin in his ‘The Metropolitan Opera’ speaks of limited power, vocally overweighed; so does Taubman in the Times but he welcomes the very stylish newcomer. Hinton in Opera Magazine is positive “all told, a very useful singer” and notes that Bergonzi sings the trill in ‘ah si ben mio’ (“who else observes the marking ?”). What no critic knew or suspected, and Bergonzi must have had nerves of steel and a profound knowledge of the score, was that this was his first Manrico. Neither the audiences, critics or Bing were flabbergasted but he earned the right to return. He got 700 $ a night (Del Monaco and Tucker both got 1500$ per evening in that same season; Björling only 1000 $) but he was not cheap either. That season world stars Merrill and Gobbi respectively got 600 and 650 $ which proves that the best-known baritone earns less than a not-well known tenor.
Maybe this début was even more important than Bergonzi realized. It’s still not clear who exactly at Decca had the idea of offering him a recording contract. In late November 1956 there was the annual meeting in Paris of the Decca big shots (Lewis, Rosengarten) to discuss plans for next year together with a few of their record producers and the man who was their representative for sales in the U.S. (their biggest market). That man was Remy Farkass, boss of London (as Decca was and still is known in the States), at that time still brother-in-law to Giuseppe Di Stefano and according to Decca-producer John Culshaw only interested in recordings of opera and opera-singers. Was it Farkass who had recently heard Bergonzi at the Met and asked that he should record a recital in the summer of 1957 in Rome ? (Decca rented the orchestra and hall of the Academia di Sancta Cecilia for more than fifteen consecutive summers to make their operatic recordings.) It is highly probable as to all other participants to the meeting the name of Bergonzi would almost have meant nothing. Farkass was definitely responsible for the introduction of Flaviano Labo’s only official operatic-recital. In Europe Decca produced a miserly medium-play record, while in the US Farkass brought this out on a fine LP (with colour sleeve), and two extra arias.
1957 was Bergonzi’s last year before world renown, recordings and a full agenda would change his life into fixed patterns for almost twenty years. For the last time he would sing an opera by a modern composer: “Fior di Maria” by Renzo Bianchi. RAI had graciously consented, against the composer’s wishes, to a later broadcast as initially the dates would collude with Bergonzi’s Met début. “Fior di Maria” by not very successful Bianchi (1887-1972)was a RAI-broadcast that up to now has never popped up, probably because nobody at RAI knows of it any more and still more probable because no opera-lover in Italy at that time wanted to record it on his tape-deck. Then there were the usual roles of Enzo, Des Grieux, Chénier etc. though it was the one time that he regularly performed in France (Monte Carlo and mostly at the fashionable spa of Enghien). French reviews were good though they would only enthuse a few years later when they belatedly realized whom they had heard. During the summer of 57 he would take his last holidays for many years even though he recorded his début-recital in Rome .
In September 1957 things changed forever. After South-America ( Caracas and Mexico – the Mexico-tapes exist) he went to the Met where he stayed for half a year. Never again would he sing such an amount of consecutive performances; a few times with only one day of rest between. There were several good reasons for it. Bing gradually lengthened his seasons and this particular season once more there was a fall-out between the Met and Björling. Del Monaco had had his fill too. He was at the height of his fame and could earn far more elsewhere. He therefore restricted his performances at the Met and asked for the highest possible fee. Officially he got 1500 $ but there is a note in the archives to pay Del Monaco each time another 500 $ a performance which made him stand out, earning 500 $ more than Callas( who however was said to get money for performances she didn’t have to sing). Bergonzi got 100 $ more than previous season and rose to 800 $. He proved himself to be the ultimate useful singer, taking over roles of the Del Monaco-repertory ( Chénier, Aida), the Björling-catalogue (Bohème, Tosca), was not above smaller assignments (Butterfly) and even ventured out in the French repertoire. That Carmen-experiment would never be repeated and alas there is no tape. There is one however of his November 1957 Radames, the first time he was in the weekly broadcast. That was the moment he was introduced to the readers of ‘Opera News’ with a very small article, giving us one pearl: the recent birth of a little daughter. The unknown writer probably didn’t know enough Italian to distinguish between un figlio (a son- Marco Bergonzi) and una figlia ( a daughter). Bergonzi’s record-firm launched his operatic recital in the States for this radio début. In a full page advertisement it spoke of “Operatic Recital No 1”; implying that a nr. 2 was a distinct possibility. Anyway the Met audience of that Aida probably groaned when general manager Bing appeared before the curtain and announced that Tebaldi wouldn’t be able to sing and then fell silent when Bing told them the reason. That morning Tebaldi’s adored mother had died at the New York Buckhingham Hotel. Mary Curtis-Verna had the unenviable task of replacing Tebaldi. Paul Jackson who was not very impressed with Bergonzi’s performances at that time makes an exception for his second radio-performance, the February 1958 Bohème which he glowingly reviews in his “Sign-off for the old Met”. Apart from the youthful exuberance and the refined poetic reading there is a full high C in Che gelida, something which will soon be rare in his vocal equipment. It is during this season too that he sings his only two performances on scene with Maria Callas, both in Lucia and applauded by so discerningly a reviewer as Kolodin. Asked about his experiences with Callas later on, he would always talk in generous but very vague terms. One suspects that they were very run-of-the-mill-performances and that in the plethora of that season’s singing it all blurted out somewhat so that he has no real memories of them anymore.
Apart from his busy workload there was the appearance of his first solo-LP. In those days when only the truly great could record a solo-album with a major recording company, this was big news in the opera community. Pop-radio still didn’t exist, nor was there a third classical programme in Flanders or the Netherlands . Belcanto-hours were regular features on public radio. So I remember well how for a few months all chains regularly played aria’s from that recording and how his name quickly became known as Italy ‘s newest hope. He could be happy with reviews. Most were very positive, maybe a little more lukewarm in the States where they knew better the difference between the Decca-sound and reality than in places where he was less well known. Dutch reviewer Leo Riemens devoted extra-pages to this new phenomenon and wrote with his customary pedantry that Bergonzi was a poet notwithstanding his huge voluminous voice (Riemens hadn’t heard him in the flesh). Philip Hope-Wallace, one of the deans of British music reviews, raved too and concluded his entry in The Gramophone with a ‘Bravo Bergonzi’. In the review proper he extensively discussed Bergonzi’s style in the rendering of ‘Parmi veder le lagrime’, an aria which was not even in that album. So far for these professionals. After his Met-engagement he took some rest before starting a pattern for the next seventeen years. In July 1958 he stood for the first time in the Verona arena for a month. That summer too he had his first impression of the vagaries of recording a complete opera. Engaged for the stereo remake of the Decca Butterfly, the recording soon resulted in a mess due to a bad schedule. In his memoirs Culshaw credits himself in the role of saviour by flying in and forcing Tebaldi, Serafin and Bergonzi to record the opera in a few sessions.
I.2. The great years (1959-1974)
From now on routine settles in. Several months each year are always devoted to the Met, sometimes in the autumn, sometimes in the spring and sometimes both. When not at the Met he accepts engagements in the big Italian provincial theatres. Slowly and almost meticulously he makes the rounds of Vienna (often in the early sixties), Chicago , Philadelphia , London . Summer months are always devoted to the Verona arena (not in 1967 when for once it’s Rome ‘s Caracalla) and recording complete opera’s. It is a steady almost routine life of packing, singing, packing, singing etc. dotted with the usual highlights of an exceptional success or failure, a hotly-discussed recording contract, a promised or refused new production or opening-night. In these, his heydays, he is one of the top performers in his profession, though he never reaches absolute top. He is popular with the critics for his sense of style, and with part of the public though that is initially somewhat shy due to his not overgenerous natural gifts. Adoration however will come only during his twilight-days. Two rivals will always mar his path: the elder Mario Del Monaco and Bergonzi’s contemporary: Franco Corelli.
Del Monaco, nine years older than Bergonzi, came from a different world: bourgeoisie, well-educated and belonging to the very last generation for whom opera was still a living creative art. He was personally consecrated by Umberto Giordano. Del Monaco belonged to the remains of a world where opera singers were superstars, where an operatic tenor and not some electronically enhanced pop-screecher was the top of the musical profession, where ordinary working people all over the Western world knew his name. Their records were often played on radio, they were asked to make movies. Next to his big virile voice Del Monaco brought with him a magnificent romantic hero face, a slim youthful appearance and any movie-director worth his salt could easily hide the fact that the tenor was a small guy. He was Italy ‘s secret weapon against Hollywood ‘s Mario Lanza as he was the real thing; not a movie tenor but a real successor of Enrico Caruso. Of course the strange thing was that he was best known for a movie in which he didn’t put in an appearance. Italy reposted to Hollywood ‘s The Great Caruso with its own “Enrico Caruso: La leggenda di una voce”. Nowadays some people still say that Del Monaco played the role of the legendary tenor though he only lent his voice. (Ermanno Randi played the tittle role). The movie, not Del Monaco’s first (L’Uomo dal Guanto Grigio was from 1948) nevertheless made the tenor’s name a household word. In the following years he would act and sing in biographies of Mascagni and the immensely succesful Il Re della Melodia( Verdi). He would end his movie career with the German Schlussakkord in the late fifties. Next to Del Monaco Bergonzi paled. He would never make movies. For technical reasons (lightning) live tv-performances were rare. He would only be known to opera fans. He didn’t have a monstrous ego though he was not always as easygoing as some people believed him to be. He didn’t look glamorous at all. He was only 1m 68 and grew rather stout early on. He was not known for grand gestures on the scene or for impassioned acting that would anyway hamper his ultimate weapon: perfect breathing. In short he could only compete on a pure vocal level where he more than held his own and in most Verdi- and Puccini-roles he surpassed the elder tenor. Artistic merit and commercial merit however are two different things. Bergonzi early on was not a gigantic seller. I remember too well how his début-recital could easily be bought in its original sleeve in Rome and Düsseldorf as late as 1973, more than fifteen years after its appearance. Producers, conductors and reviewers liked him a lot, managers of record companies not overmuch. Culshaw tells in broad detail how difficult it was to get him for the now legendary Karajan-Tebaldi-Aida and Serafin-Tebaldi-Bohème. Mauritz Rosengarten, the self-styled boss of continental Decca, clearly preferred Del Monaco who would have sold better and only grudgingly gave in. He had to console Del Monaco with a later to be recorded Wagner-recital. Culshaw doesn’t tell however how he next couldn’t get Bergonzi anymore in the studio for less spectacular recordings (which he didn’t produce himself). Every role Bergonzi and Del Monaco had in common went to the elder tenor (Tosca, Cavalleria and Pag which Del Monaco recorded for the second time, Adriana Lecouvreur with Del Monaco clearly on the way back but indeed probably more sale-able than Bergonzi). After it was clear that Del Monaco had lost most of his powers Rosengarten still clung to him as Il Tabarro went to the elder singer. As late as 1968 Del Monaco got Wally where he was intolerable even though Bergonzi had sung a live performance with Tebaldi. Worse, even when Del Monaco’s shadow didn’t loom large, Decca didn’t think much of Bergonzi. They were very happy that as part of an exchange deal with RCA, they could get Jussi Björling to record Ballo, one of Bergonzi’s best roles. When Solti’s Prussian tactics drove Björling out of Rome , they meekly went for Bergonzi after the great Swede had died unexpectedly. But the formidable party-record that accompanied Karajan’s Fledermaus told it clearly. All Decca’s big sellers were on it giving their best interpretation of a Neapolitan song or a musical ditty. Bergonzi was not on it as Decca preferred Björling’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”. After Björling’s death Bergonzi was only asked when there was no other alternative. During the early sixties Joan Sutherland was the firm’s big seller and her husband clearly preferred the young inexperienced and rather crude singing of Renato Cioni, because he was taller and made a better sight with Sutherland in the theatre and therefore had to be rewarded. He got the recordings of Rigoletto and Lucia (which was in Bergonzi’s repertory). Bergonzi would only get one chance with Sutherland and he clearly had not understood the name of the game. In Decca’s 1961-Traviata he sang such a poetic Alfredo that every critic singled out his performance and asked: “since when did you buy a Traviata for Alfredo instead of Violetta ?” The Bonynges were not amused and he wouldn’t get another recording with them until that fateful Adriana. They once more preferred a younger and taller tenor though this time they struck gold with Luciano Pavarotti (but we would loose Bergonzi’s Nemorino).
And then there was Franco Corelli. Does one single individual deserve it to receive as natural gifts such vocal talents with such histrionic possibilities? In an age when the average Italian tenor measured 1 m.65 Corelli loomed eighteen centimetres higher. He had the face of the Roman consul Hollywood would never find among its most glamorous actors and ‘golden calves’ was one of his many nicknames. Still his awful male beauty was nothing compared to that bronze voluminous individual lirico-spinto with a splendid high register that always could make a B sound like a C (and most of the time did). According to veteran Italian critic Rodolfo Celetti the most important post-war tenor, though Celetti admits that actually he liked Bergonzi more. That Sputnik-tenor (another nickname) was soon crowned king of La Scala and Bergonzi would only get regular invitations to sing in Milan after Corelli definitively left the Milanese house in 1964. As long as Corelli limited himself to Europe there was little friction possible. La Scala wisely kept Bergonzi out. Both men shared more or less the same lirico-spinto-repertory but La Scala employed Corelli’s services in early 19th century roles (Huguenots, Poliuto, Pirata) while Bergonzi stuck to the popular Italians. Things changed when Bing succeeded in luring Corelli to the Met. That non-subsidized house had to stick to the bread-and-butter-opera”s and all at once the two tenors shared the same repertory. One of Corelli’s many phobia’s was air-travel, so that he preferred to stay for long months in the States and give his services to the Met. With his looks and huge voice, so well adapted to the Met (the Old and the New) he soon became an idol, always good for a sell-out sign. Consequently Bergonzi’s performances became less numerous there though he was never put on a small diet. During the sixties there were a lot of fan-battles between the Corellists in the Family Circle and the Bergonzists in the standing places. Both men kept their distances, no false friendship and never a mention of the other’s name. Corelli later denied that he had beaten maestro Gandolfi because that gentleman had unfavourably compared his sense of style with Bergonzi’s in front of the chorus and orchestra at Parma though he admitted that behind his back he called Bergonzi “padronissimo”. Deep in his heart Bergonzi knew that he was more or less nr. 2 in the hierarchy but he was always deferentially treated by Bing. The general-manager led him to believe that he was at least as well paid as Corelli (After Corelli’s retirement it became clear that he and Nilsson were often paid for performances they didn’t have to sing. Only on paper it looked as if the Met’s ceiling on fees were the same for Corelli and Bergonzi). Bergonzi got his openings, his new productions as well because Bing never fully trusted Corelli’s (and Mrs. Corelli’s) temperament so that he liked to have Bergonzi in reserve. After his 1964 vocal crises Corelli reacted by abandoning some of his more strenuous spinto-roles and took in some pure lirical ones like Rodolfo, annexing some of Bergonzi’s turf. There was only one big crisis. With the opening of the new Met Bergonzi absolutely wanted to sing a few performances in the first new production of a popular Italian opera: La Gioconda. Bing refused as he had promised them to Corelli. Bergonzi didn’t take no for an answer and at last Bing sent him a letter, berating him and implying between lines that he could do without the tenor’s services Bergonzi simply adapted the same tactic and went even more lyric and took on some roles he was sure Corelli would never adapt: Nemorino and Alfredo and the Duke. Bergonzi’s pride as an Italian tenor forbade him to accept the verdict meekly but he had his wife write a letter to Bing, speaking of artistic nerves and humbly flattering the general manager. Bing knew when he had won and took the tenor back in good grace.
Next to the Met Bergonzi concentrated his career once more on all the big Italian theatres and the Verona arena, where Corelli didn’t appear any more. He was definitely the number one tenor in Italy during the sixties, which is something different than the nr.1 Italian tenor. On the recording front Decca signed up the better-selling Corelli as well but as DGG and RCA and later Philips started extensive recording programmes Bergonzi suffered less from Corelli’s competition than formerly from Del Monaco. Moreover as Mrs. Loretta Di Lelio-Corelli pushed her husband into rather erratic behaviour in the recording studio, recording an opera with the most popular tenor of the age was always a risk and producers therefore sometimes preferred Bergonzi. Twice he had to come to the rescue when Corelli broke up his contract: in 1967 he saved Decca’s Gioconda and in 1969 he gave his wonderful classic Alvaro to EMI when Corelli cancelled one week before recording started. Though there was scarcely a year without one or even two new recordings of complete opera’s, there was one big difference with his predecessor, his contemporary and his successors. No recording company offered him a solo recital as the myth went that the tenor on his own didn’t sell. I still remember the excitement that ran through me in that fine old Ricordi-shop around the corner to La Scala in 1968. It was on that same memorable (first) trip to Italy . The evening before we had set up our tent in a pitch-dark camping in Varese . At five o’clock in the morning I awoke as my air-mattress tried to leave the tent by itself. It had been strongly raining for hours and unknowingly we had set up our tent in the camping’s hilly draining terrain. Wet and cold we drove to Milan where in those days it was still possible to park next to the cathedral. Cold and wetness left me in one single moment at Ricordi when I took that wonderful LP in my hands: ”Ieri e Oggi con Carlo Bergonzi”, a masterly record with Italian songs from the thirties till the sixties (When Bergonzi sang at Ghent in 1981, I lectured on him and took the conference hall by storm by playing unannounced his ‘Strangers in the Night’). The record was on the completely unknown label Jaguar and up to now, I’ve still to meet another collector with a copy. In 1969 no copy could be found anymore. Later on a few of these songs were put on an RCA-Italiana-LP together with Becchi and Tagliavini. In 1980 Rifi Record once more brought out the record, deleting two songs but adding two new songs from that same 1968 session. I immediately bought it and indeed next year it had disappeared as well. This magnificent and infectious song recital, the only one by Bergonzi in his truly great years, deserves to be put on CD.
A chronology of Bergonzi-performances during these fifteen years is not to be discussed here but there were some noteworthy evenings and moments. Extremely important were the opening nights in New York and Milan . He was the Manrico in the Trovatore that opened the 59-60 season at the Met but following his stature of the day there was the inevitable snag. New York had been waiting for two decades for Giulietta Simionato who auspiciously made her belated début at the Met in that performance. So a good solid tenor was needed and not a scene-stealer as Del Monaco, Baum or Tucker. His next opening was in 63-64 and the snag was the Met’s most formidable soprano: Birgit Nilsson got at last another Italian opera besides Turandot. Better to put Bergonzi next to her than the formidable Corelli. He succeeded in creating a small musical sensation by taking softly the final B in Celeste Aida, though Kolodin thought it to be more of a sigh than a genuine piano .So there remains the opening of the 70-71 season with Ernani, the one opening Bergonzi got without strings attached. At La Scala too he was now a regular guest. In 1964 he went with the company to Moscow for Trovatore and Lucia. On the 12th of October Bergonzi, Price, Cossotto, Ghiaurov conducted by Karajan sang the Verdi-requiem at the Bolshoi and were presented to all the big shots of the Soviet Union . They hadn’t the slightest ideas that it was the last public appearance of Nikita Chroestjov whose own requiem would come quite unexpectedly two days later when the politburo sacked him. Bergonzi’s career still had a few honours to earn and one came next year when on the traditional 7th of December he got his one and only opening of the Milan theatre with Forza. The opera surely earned its reputation for mischief. Cappuccilli was indisposed and gave up after the first act to be replaced by Carlo Meliciani. The upper galleries didn’t agree with Gavazzeni and clearly showed their displeasure. Gavazzeni turned himself around and loudly shouted out what he thought of their behaviour. Outside the theatre there was a demonstration against one of the patrons and inside the theatre it rained leaflets against the policies of certain theatrical agencies. In short nobody took notice of the cast though Bergonzi was singled out for praise once normality returned from the second performance on.
Important are his few television performances. I was doing my military service in Germany in 1966 when an Aida was captured in the Verona arena. It was the only time I pulled rank to have the set for myself. His 1967-Manrico at RAI was fine but synchronized. Due to lightning problems Western public TV almost never ventured in opera houses during live performances between 1950 and 1975. The loss is tremendous. Only a few spare wonderful performances were saved, most by the Japanese who were not hampered by the opera-is-high-art-attitude and who bravely put on their camera’s in concert halls. Scotto and Bergonzi’s Lucia of 1967 was saved in that way and so was the Un Ballo with Stella. RAI gave us a wonderful Elisir with Scotto and Taddei, taped in Firenze in 1967. A tape which has not appeared up to now is the RAI-registration of the Toscanini-jubilations of 1968. Bergonzi was the tenor-soloist in the Inno delle Nazione, an honour which marked his importance as a Verdi-tenor.
An honour proved that at last he was a prophet in his own ‘country’. Busseto has an active Verdi-society ‘Amici di Verdi’ and in 1972 they honoured him with the first ‘Verdi d’oro’ . During his greatest fifteen years, there was as of necessity an evolution in the voice but it went a somewhat queer way. The robusto-quality, the dark core slowly disappeared, so went the tiny vibrato. This didn’t come about from a change from repertory. Though Bergonzi indeed sang a lot more of pure lirical roles, he nevertheless remained on a heavy diet of big spinto-roles like Manrico, Radames, Alvaro, Andréa Chénier and he added a tough guy as Pollione to his list. The voice kept its volume, indeed as normal, increased slightly. The top-notes came somewhat more difficult and from the mid sixties on he would never sing a C anymore in performance but though there was no real squillo, there was nothing wrong with his A’s and B’s. The strange thing was the hauntingly beautiful colour of the middle register. The voice always was slightly less pure, less beautiful than the Decca-engineers produced it but with getting elder, notwithstanding all those heavyweights, the middle voice got more honeyed, more sweeter. I clearly remember two of his Indian Summer performances in Verona as Enzo in 1973. The musical phrase, the singing on the breath, the incomparable legato combined with a few tiny small tears were all there. But there was a glowing beauty as well, reminding one of young Gigli’s ‘Cielo e Mar’. One did enjoy Bergonzi not any more for style alone but marvelled at the colours of an originally somewhat unwieldy instrument. A lot would happen in a few years’ time but that “beautiful voice” would stay with him almost till the end.
Jan Neckers, Opera Nostalgia
Carlo Bergonzi, standing in front of the Teatro Verdi, and a statue of the great composer, Piazza Giuseppe Verdi, Busseto, Italy (left).
Carlo Bergonzi and Luciano Pavarotti
Maria Callas and Carlo Bergonzi