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Music Pages

Legendary Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi dies aged 90

28 July 2014

Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)
Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014)(Photo: Decca/Mike Evans)

Obituary by Ashutosh Khandekar

Carlo Bergonzi’s extraordinary affinity with the music of Verdi was almost inevitable. The great tenor, who died on 25 July aged 90, was born in the northern Italian region of Polesine Parmenese, just a stone’s throw from Verdi’s birthplace near Busseto.

As a child, Bergonzi sang in the local children’s chorus in Busseto, but in his teenage years he trained to be a cheese-maker at his father’s Parmesan factory. Steeped in the music and culture of his local surroundings, he trained first as a pianist, then as a baritone at the Parma Conservatoire.

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bergonzi. He was interned in Austria for his anti-Nazi campaigning, returning to Italy after the war both physically and mentally exhausted. He took to his musical studies again as a way of regaining his confidence and he made his operatic debut in the baritone role of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1948.

He continued to sing as a baritone until 1950, when he stepped into the shoes of an indisposed young Tito Gobbi in the title role in Rigoletto: during that performance, Bergonzi recalled that he began to understand that he was no baritone: ‘I didn’t succeed in finding the power, also the velvet voice for the pathetic moments, that the part demands. Still, I saw the performance through. I was very happy to have worn the costume, but the experience gave me the first suggestion that I should change repertory.’

In making the change to tenor, Bergonzi was self-taught, emulating the very best on offer by listening to the recordings of Caruso, ‘for the inimitable purity of the sound’; Gigli, for sheer control ‘from piano to forte’; Schipa, for ‘extraordinary technique’; and Pertile, for his powers of interpretation.

In just three months, Bergonzi launched himself on his career as a tenor. In 1954, he made his La Scala debut in a new opera, Masaniello, by Jacopo Napoli. It was, however, in the operas of Donizetti, Puccini and above all Verdi that Bergonzi really made his mark. The voice never had the beauty of Corelli or Pavarotti, nor the visceral power and drama of Vickers or Domingo. What Bergonzi brought to the operatic stage, in a career that spanned half a century, was natural elegance, technical assuredness and an open-hearted musicality that gave his performances a beguiling and often moving honesty.

The great connoisseur of voices John Steane pointed out that ‘impeccable’ was the adjective most associated with Bergonzi. You can hear his attention to detail and the care that he takes with dynamics and phrasing in so many of the classic opera recordings that he made at the height of his career, recently re-released in a timely 90th-anniversary box set by Decca, under the title Carlo Bergonzi: The Verdi Tenor. Especially notable in this 17-CD set are a miraculously vivid Aida (1959) with Karajan conducting and Renata Tebaldi in the title role. As Radamès, Bergonzi is peerless in his finely judged yet utterly unaffected phrasing. His Alfredo opposite Joan Sutherland’s virtuosic Violetta proves to be the ideal pairing in a 1962 La traviata, full of tenderness and youthful ardour. His Duke in Rigoletto (1964, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the title role) has a suave nobility that makes the character’s wicked actions seem all the more appalling.

The longevity of Bergonzi’s career means that opera lovers today might still recall his frequent appearances at the Royal Opera House, La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s. By then, his voice had started to show some wear and tear, and his semaphoric acting looked quaintly archaic. Indeed, Bergonzi’s physical presence on stage was never his strongpoint. He once admitted his shortcomings in an interview to The Times: ‘I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.’

The voice, indeed, said it all: few tenors could match Bergonzi’s vocal eloquence, freshness and mastery of phrasing. Even at his disastrous farewell appearance in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello at Carnegie Hall in 2000, the voice still had moments where the pure, steady timbre of the tenor’s glory years shone through. (In the end, however, the effort of singing one of the most challenging tenor roles at the age of 76 took its toll, and Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after Act II.)

It is in the Decca and Philips recordings of Verdi, mostly dating from the late 1950s and 1960s, that Bergonzi shows himself to be the model tenor, a beacon of superb technique, taste and faultless musicality. It’s hardly surprising that Pavarotti referred to him as ‘The Boss’. In his latter years, he mentored a new generation of tenors by way of the Accademia Verdiana, the singing school that he ran from his hotel, I Due Foscari, in Busseto. Through his teaching, he provided a seamless link to the ‘Grand Tradition’ of great tenors which stretched back through the 20th century to the lifetime of Verdi himself.

  • Carlo Bergonzi, operatic tenor, born 13 July 1924; died 25 July 2014

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