In our last post, we remembered Licia Albanese, Met soprano for twenty-six years, from 1940 to 1966, a Puccini specialist. Albanese died in the summer of 2014. With this post we remember Carlo Bergonzi, Met tenor for almost as long, 1956 to 1988, and Verdi specialist. He too, died last summer.
Bergonzi was born in 1924 in the town of Vidalenzo. In nearby Parma he began vocal study with a teacher who counted among his remarkable students the soprano Renata Tebaldi. During WWII, Bergonzi was interned in a German camp for three years. At war’s end, he resumed his education in music and eventually made his debut as a baritone in 1948, as Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. For several years, Bergonzi appeared in a variety of baritone parts in Italy’s provincial opera houses. But he would soon realize that he was in fact a tenor. He made his tenor debut as Andrea Chénier in Umberto Giordano’s opera in 1951. Two years later, Bergonzi made his La Scala debut, and in 1955, his US debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. His first Met performance took place on November 13, 1956, the seventh season of general manager Rudolf Bing’s tenure in New York.
As we wrote in our recent history of the Metropolitan, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met (University of California Press, 2014), Bing had ushered in what would be an extraordinary Verdi era with Don Carlo on the opening night of his inaugural season, 1950-51. Verdi ruled again on opening nights 1951 and 1952 with Aïda and then La Forza del destino. All this was to be expected. Asked to name his favorite operas, the general manager-designate had ticked off three Verdi titles, and then just one work by each of seven other composers. Between 1950 and 1966, Verdi accounted for 25% of Metropolitan performances, significantly more than the 14% and the 19% of his two immediate predecessors. Under Bing, Verdi pulled far ahead of Wagner, the previous front-runner. Verdi also led the pack in the percentage of new productions, fourteen of fifty-nine. Bing’s predilection would have mattered little had the company not boasted, year after year, a cohort of outstanding singers capable of honoring the master’s melos. Casts that included Zinka Milanov, Leontyne Price, Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker, Franco Corelli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Cesare Siepi, and, of course, Carlo Bergonzi, were arguably the best in the world.
Bergonzi’s first Met engagement was limited to two well-received performances opposite Antonietta Stella, another newcomer, in Aïda and, three days later, in Il Trovatore. He returned the following November to a season-long commitment, a full complement of eight roles that he shared with the company’s array of leading tenors, including well-established stars Tucker and Del Monaco, the recently arrived Daniele Barioni and Giuseppe Campora, and Flaviano Labò and Eugenio Fernandi, making their debuts. He immediately proved himself a model of musical refinement in the repertoire of the Italian dramatic tenor, the tenore di forza. His sweet timbre and shapely phrasing were balm in roles often consigned to singers whose triumphs were measured predominantly in brilliant tone, in the ringing squillo of stentorian high notes.
Although he also excelled in the works of Puccini and others, as amply documented in his extensive discography, Bergonzi defined himself as a Verdi tenor. Late in his career, he committed arias from all of Verdi’s operas to a single album. At the Met, he sang Riccardo in Un Ballo in maschera more often than anyone in the company’s history. In two complete recordings, with Birgit Nilsson, then Leontyne Price, Bergonzi’s mercurial King of Sweden juggles playfulness, passion, and benevolent authority with characteristic finesse. Here, in a 1967 performance from Japan, Riccardo, masquerading as a sailor, asks the fortune-teller to read his future. Master of the aria’s tricky rhythms, Bergonzi shows off both the legato and the brio that made him the tenor of choice in this wonderfully varied role.
Second only to journeyman Kurt Baum, Bergonzi sang the role of Radamès more often than any other Met tenor since the 1940s. In this 1959 recording, cushioned by Herbert Von Karajan’s languorous tempo and the silken texture of the Vienna Philharmonic, he finds a welcome and rarely heard dreamy tone for the warrior’s evocation of his “celeste Aïda.”
The wide-ranging line of “O tu che in seno agli angeli,” from La Forza del destino, is a test of legato and dynamic control. With appropriately dolorous tone, Bergonzi conveys Alvaro’s despair, first in the recitative that recalls the sorrows of his past and the presumed demise of his beloved Leonora, then in the aria, where he wishes for his own death. This clip is from a live performance, thunderously received by the 1965 opening night La Scala audience. Below is a third example of the “covered voice” we heard Bergonzi press insistently, even obsessively, on the young Verdians he coached a decade or so ago in Barcelona during the Concurso Internacional de Canto Francisco Viñas.