Our series moves to performers, as Simon Thomas explains his love for a great tenor
There was a documentary on TV back in the early 1980s which followed the career of a fast-rising soprano. At one point the young singer was supposed to be appearing with Luciano Pavarotti and he, not uncharacteristically, cancelled at the last moment. She described his replacement, Carlo Bergonzi as “even better” and I was really intrigued about this tenor whose heyday had been in the 50s and 60s and who she considered to be a bigger catch than the greatest opera superstar of the day.
Thanks to a rich legacy of recordings, I soon discovered what the soprano meant, and from that point on Carlo Bergonzi rapidly became my favourite tenor. His many recordings became, and still are, my preferred choices. In fact, he’s spoiled me for a lot of operas; whenever I see La traviata, I get at least a twinge of disappointment that it’s not Bergonzi singing.
Needless to say, this tenor’s singing of the Italian repertoire is idiomatic to the point of perfection, born as he was near Parma in 1924. Before Bergonzi, my favourite tenor had been Jussi Björling, a near contemporary, whose Italian was unsurprisingly never perfect. Bergonzi’s sound wasn’t broad and luscious like Björling’s or Pavarotti’s but it had a crystalline beauty and precision that was unmatched.
The pinpoint focus of his singing didn’t go hand in hand with great acting, as can be seen in the videos available of him in performance. Like Björling, he was very much of the stand and deliver school, his eyes often glued to the conductor and with little sign of dramatic instinct. The sounds coming from him, though, made that a trifling matter.
A good example of his poor physicality is the 1966 performance of Aida from Verona, with grainy black and white photography, cardboard sets and ridiculous costumes. As a piece of theatre it’s laughable but musically it’s unsurpassed, with Bergonzi’s Radamès accompanying superlative performances by Leyla Gencer as Aida and Fiorenza Cossotto as Amneris.
Bergonzi’s repertoire was limited to mainly Italian operas and the composer he’s most readily associated with is Verdi, in all of whose major tenor roles he excelled (a surprising fact is that he started his singing career as a baritone). He was also a great supporter of Verdi’s lesser-known early works; titles such as I due Foscari, I Lombardi, Giovanna d’Arco and I masnadieri were part of his repertoire when no-one else was doing them.
It’s daft to talk about any singer being definitive, as the art form can accommodate many different styles and approaches, but I’d count Alfredo (La traviata), Alvaro (La forza del destino), Gustavo (Un ballo in maschera) and to some extent Don Carlo as roles that have never been better sung. He was also superb in Puccini, the bel canto operas of Donizetti and the verismo classics.
“His many recordings became, and still are, my preferred choices. In fact, he’s spoiled me for a lot of operas…”
There are many fine recordings but I’ve selected just five that I consider essential listening. Firstly the 1962 La traviata, conducted by John Pritchard with Joan Sutherland at her sweetest, makes this over-heard classic fresh as a daisy at every listening. It’s never sounded more beautiful or heart-wrenching.
La forza del destino, conducted by Lamberto Gardelli with Arroyo and Cappucilli, is also Bergonzi at his best and is my second recommendation. The grandstanding arias are just astonishing.
There has to be a Puccini in the list and I’d select Madama Butterfly, recorded in 1958 with Renata Tebaldi and conducted by Tullio Serafin. It beats Tosca with Callas and even La bohème, also with Tebaldi and Serafin (wonderful though it is, it has never quite replaced the Beecham recording with Björling and de Los Angeles as my number one).
Because early Verdi was so important to Bergonzi (he even owned a restaurant that he named I due Foscari), I’ll make my fourth selection Ernani, just one of a number of recordings of this rare repertoire. He perfectly demonstrates his ability to raise these inferior works to new levels. It is far from the composer at his best (it’s irritatingly catchy for one thing), but the tenor is superb, alongside a radiant Leontyne Price.
For my final choice I’m going to suggest a compilation album where you can hear a fine cross-section of his roles including sizeable chunks of the recordings already discussed plus excerpts from Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, and tracks from Lucia di Lammermoor, Pagliacci, Cavelleria Rusticana, Adriana Lecouvreur. There’s even a splendid “Dio! Mi potevi Scagliar” from Otello. It’s a double album called The Sublime Voice of Carlo Bergonzi and is a couple of hours of pure joy as he owns one aria after another (there are plenty of duets with other great artists as well).
My biggest regret during my operagoing life is that I didn’t see Bergonzi live. I could easily have done so, as he sang at Covent Garden well into the 80s and, although he may have been past his best by then, I now kick myself for not being there. When Bergonzi died in 2014, shortly after his 90th birthday, I wrote that he was the last tenor of a golden age. There have been some wonderful singers since he retired but I doubt we’ll ever again hear a voice quite like that of Carlo Bergonzi.