Eddie Pensier writes:
There aren’t many singers who have epitomized the true meaning of bel canto better than Carlo Bergonzi. It literally means “beautiful singing”, and refers to the style or school that emphasizes vocal beauty and line above other dramatic considerations, and Bergonzi lived it until the moment of his passing on Friday.
He was the first to admit he was no singing actor. Short, dumpy, and lacking in theatrical aptitude, he was certainly nobody’s idea of a matinée idol. But the voice made up for it in spades. Richer than your average lyric tenor but more graceful than a dramatic tenor, Bergonzi stuck to his core Italian rep and became one of the greats by not overexerting his instrument. As a result, he was able to sing gloriously well past the usual mid-50s expiry date for tenors.
This is him in 1967, singing one of his great roles of Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore. Note the unabashed and currently unfashionable naked emotion, in the form of the little hitched sobs at the beginning and ending of phrases. Note also that he walks completely out of camera range for about 40 seconds in the middle, and the cameraman doesn’t seem to notice, or care. As you wouldn’t, because you weren’t there to watch: you were there to hear.
The 1959 Decca/Serafin recording of La bohème with Bergonzi and Renata Tebaldi is considered by many aficionados to be the best one available (personally I veer back and forth between it and the 1956 Beecham/Björling/de los Angeles, with a soft spot reserved for the 1963 Schippers/Gedda/Freni). The Act 1 duet “O soave fanciulla” will give you shivers.
The finale of Pagliacci is a brutal and emotional tread for any tenor, but Bergonzi makes it sound easy in this 1951 RAI Milan clip. Listen to him spitting out the famous final words: “La commedia… è finita!” (“The show is over!”), after having just killed his wife.
Bergonzi made few excursions outside his native language, and on the few occasions where he did venture into French rep (I can find no record of his ever having sung in German) he generally sang it in translation. Here is a very, very Italian version of “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Massenet’s Werther, from the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, 1961.
The final clip I’m sharing with you is from James Levine’s 25th Anniversary Gala at the Metropolitan Opera in 1996, a six-hour marathon of epic singing that I was privileged enough to attend in person. (If you weren’t similarly lucky, you can buy a nearly-complete DVD of it here.) Bergonzi was 72–let me repeat, SEVENTY-FUCKING-TWO– when he performed “Quando le sere al placido” from Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Sure there are some moments of dodgy intonation, but the voice is astonishingly robust. The video cuts off at least half of the ecstatic ovation he received in the theater, which went on for three solid minutes. I don’t mind telling you that seeing this pudgy little Italian man bravely carrying the Italian bel canto tradition made me rather emotional.
- I talked about another great tenor, Fritz Wunderlich, in another Five Ways column, here.
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