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The Column: Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014), Memories of the Master

By James Inverne j.inverne@classicalite.com on Aug 01, 2014 04:58 PM EDT

I only met Carlo Bergonzi once, yet I don't remember a time when I didn't know him. Growing up as the son of an opera-addicted father, and soon giving in willingly to that same habit, we would often talk of the Italian, or at least Italianate, tenors in terms of pairs. Most generations had their great, rich lyrical tenor and, staring at him from the other side of the mirror, the more dramatic counter-balance.

They would share virtues, and just as the heavier of the voices would give his Rigoletto Duke of Mantua, or his Boheme Rodolfo (the province of more slender sounds), so the graceful rival would grow frustrated by the natural limitations of his weight-class and usually end up by venturing a Turandot Calaf, an Aida Radames, even an Otello. Sometimes they got away with it, often not. Giuseppe Di Stefano's Otello remains one of the fiascos of operatic lore, while, from a different era, Placido Domingo was never entirely convincing in La boheme.

Yet there they stood, facing one another, these great contenders for the tenor titles of each decade. Gigli and Tucker, Di Stefano and Del Monaco, Pavarotti and Domingo, Alagna and Licitra, there are many. Yet always -- always -- the discussion between my father and I would circle back round to Franco Corelli and Carlo Bergonzi. And Bergonzi, well, he was special.

More than any other lyrical tenor, he found a way -- not to beef up for the heavy sings, but a way to approach them on his own terms, lyrically. Which is not to say that he didn't have a big sound when he needed it. The Welsh bass Gwynne Howell, who sang with Bergonzi often -- their partnership can be heard to fabulous effect in an 'unofficial' Forza recording -- told me recently what it was like being on stage next to Bergonzi, how that voice could make the air vibrate around you.

But listen to his recording of Verdi's Aida, under Karajan. With the exception of a pianissimo ending to the big aria "Celeste Aida" (which is specified but which almost nobody can manage -- two honorable exceptions being Jose Carreras and Dennis O'Neill) Bergonzi brings style and, yes, grace and, yes, drama too to Radames. It's not Corelli -- that heroic man's man of a voice -- and neither is it the animalistic passion of Jon Vickers (my favourite Radames). But as a sung performance, in some ways it is more satisfying than the rival recordings of either.

Similarly his Alvaro in La Forza del Destino was an aristocrat who, in never pushing the vocal line even in that killer role, gave the impression of a man whose torment simply and naturally poured out of him. Same goes for his magnificent Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera (by some margin the best on disc), except there it is optimistic, rather than fatalistic, love that gushes forth. While his Cavaradossi, perhaps his single finest recorded performance (for Georges Pretre, in Maria Callas's second Tosca recording), shows brilliant calculation - Bergonzi quite deliberately switching from plangent, beautiful ardour for his duets with Callas to quick bursts of full-throttle power as he and Tito Gobbi's Scarpa circle each other.

These recordings, and others, have never been far from my grasp. And I thought I would finally interview the man himself some years ago when, as editor of Gramophone, I wanted some memories of the just-departed Birgit Nilsson. I phoned the Italian hotel (owned, I believe, by his son) which he would frequent, and the Maestro himself came on the line. Unfortunately, as he explained, he was nervous about his English -- forcing me to thrust the phone at a startled Italian colleague with the words, "Would you mind talking to Carlo Bergonzi?". I'm still not sure whether said colleague, not a regular interviewer for the magazine, has ever quite recovered.

But when I did finally meet the tenor, it was brief, but perfect. It was at the MIDEM music industry conference in Cannes. Bergonzi was getting one of those awards for still being alive, and had agreed to a public Q&A with the Italy-based journalist Stephen Hastings. Bergonzi said rather little, watching his younger self in action on a big screen with a sometimes glassy-eyed expression. Once, he sighed. "It all goes so fast. So fast."

Yet there were lovely stories too, some told to me and a few others who stayed behind to chat to him at the end. He and I shared a Verdi fixation, and he proudly showed me his cane, tipped with a silver mould of Verdi's face. The Bergonzis and Verdi were from the same town and Carlo's grandfather, he revealed, knew the composer. Bergonzi senior was a cheese-seller, and one day he decided to doorstep Verdi. He knocked and, as the tenor told it, Verdi came to the door. He even sampled some cheese. Finding one to his liking, he ordered a portion, adding, "Do you know who I am? And must I pay for this?" Bergonzi's grandfather looked the famous composer in the eyes and replied, "Maestro, I know very well who you are. You make your living by selling music. I make mine by selling cheese. Pay up."

It does go fast. Bergonzi clearly felt that. There were times I suspected that he would rather not have been confronted with the artist that he no longer was -- it's so cruel the way nature does that to singers, while conductors can go on forever, even improving with age.

But here's one last thought that I suspect he would have liked. In common with Di Stefano, Bergonzi also had a badly-received shot at Otello, that biggest and fiercest of Verdian beasts. Yet I now know that he only fell at that hurdle because of nerves. Because I managed to get hold, not long ago, of a video of the rehearsal. And there it all is again, the monster role tamed by the consummate artist -- and at once, age notwithstanding, he is what Verdi demanded and yet Bergonzi shapes he role in his own vocal image. It is a marvellous performance and a masterclass at the highest level of the art. If Bergonzi is with Verdi now, perhaps the old composer has found a copy of that too, and perhaps he will show it to his devoted singer. And perhaps there will be one more victorious chuckle from the tenor who was, in some ways and in his fach, the greatest of them all.

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TagsThe Column, James Inverne, Carlo Bergonzi, Karajan, Verdi, Aida