Teresa Berganza is 80. While that fact may have surprised many (see article) it was certainly an occasion to celebrate, and a Royal Gala in the mezzo's home city was just the thing!
The concert at Madrid's Teatro Real mixed established opera stars with young singers including some of Berganza's protégés. A well-chosen programme highlighted Berganza's career with extracts from Rossini and Mozart operas, and some zarzuela arias. Some not-so-old voices showed signs of wear and tear and a couple of the youngest were not quite ready for the world's stages, but both camps contributed to an exhilarating evening.
Marie-Nicole Lemieux kicked off with Di tanti palpiti: a big girl with a big voice. With her winning personality and secure technique the Canadian contralto set things off on the right note, so to speak; not an easy task with cameras dotted around the theatre for the live television relay, and one of the greatest mezzos of the 20th century together with the Queen of Spain in the Royal Box in front of her.
Annick Massis was next up, going for loud and high top notes during her variations for Bel raggio lusinghier with extraordinary courage considering that at times she finds her instrument difficult to control. She is very tall, and with her fluttery kingfisher-blue dress, and golden Rapunzel locks flowing down one shoulder, she made a striking presence. Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez was assured and arrogant as Count Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro and also participated in the zarzuela section.
In this sort of occasion no one wishes to dwell on weaknesses, but Josés Bros and van Dam gave their all, and a jittery Maria Bayo sang the charming zarzuela aria Sierras de Granada.
Some interesting younger voices contributed to the finale of Il barbiere and especially the end of the second act of Le nozze di Figaro, but one voice shone through with her Rosina, Zerlina and Cherubino: that of Serena Malfi. An exceptionally secure technique coupled with a true mezzo soprano colour makes this an exciting voice indeed. It is also powerful and well-focused, and happily resides within the body of a bubbly and attractive young 27-year-old from Rome. She is already making quite a name for herself in the most important opera theatres, but I'll repeat the name, though this won't be the last time you'll hear it: Serena Malfi.
After a short video showing Berganza at various stages during her fifty-year-long career, the great mezzo came on stage to deafening applause which seemed to surprise her.
She brushed away a tear, and had difficulty finding her voice as emotions rose to the surface, but she soon got into her speech which she delivered with the verve and energy of woman half her age. She was applauded and cheered when she mentioned the need of support for the arts (the Culture Minister, in the Royal Box, had been roundly booed at the beginning of the evening; right time, wrong place?), the importance of passing on knowledge to the younger generation, her enthusiasm for being an international ambassador for the zarzuela, and of being a proud Madrileña.
This is the happiest day of my life!
she announced, before hugging each of the singers on stage, with specially long embraces reserved for Álvarez, Bayo, van Dam and the young Serena Malfi.
Rose petals showered down from the upper galleries, some colleagues shed a tear, and Teresa Berganza looked very happy indeed.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.