Carlo Bergonzi (born Polesine Parmense, 13 July 1924 – died Milan, 25 July 2014)
Carlo Bergonzi, one of the greatest tenors of the 20th Century, died last night in Milan’s Auxologico Institute, just two weeks after celebrating his 90th birthday on 13 July.
Bergonzi was born in Vidalenzo di Polesine Parmense near Parma in 1924 and at 16 he studied as a baritone in Parma’s Arrigo Boito Conservatoire. At 19, during the Second World War he was imprisoned in a hard labour camp in Germany. When he returned to Italy he continued his studies in Brescia.
His début was in 1947 in a small theatre in Varedo, just outside Milan, as Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia. For several years he continued as a baritone, even singing Rigoletto when he was still very young. While in a production of Madama Butterfly in Livorno in 1950 he discovered, while in his dressing room, that he could hit a high-C, and the next year he made his début as a tenor in Andrea Chénier in Bari, though the baritonal colour to his voice never left him.
As 1951 was the 50th Anniversary of the death of Verdi, he was signed up by Rai radio to record Giovanna d’Arco, Simon Boccanegra and I due Foscari. He made three important débuts in 1953 at La Scala, the Stoll Theatre in London at at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. In 1955 he embarked on his career in America, first in Chicago, and the following year at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in Aida. In an interview four years ago he explained:
It was an evening in 1956. I was singing Manon Lescaut in Paris. At the end I heard a voice shout “Bravo!”. It was Mario Del Monaco who in my dressing room said “Come to New York and I’ll let you sing two of my performances”. I didn’t think it would happen, but the contract arrived and I went and sang in Aida, wearing the costume made for Caruso because Del Monaco’s wasn’t my size. It was the beginning of the success. But also of the sacrifices. When I was working I went only between the house and the theatre, going out only to mass. I would go to bed at eight o’clock and never spoke on the day before a performance.
He became principally known as a Verdi tenor and he recorded the tenor arias from all 31 operas, the only tenor to have done so. He also sang at the Arena in Verona for twenty-one seasons.
He made his Covent Garden début in 1962 in a famous La forza del destino conducted by Georg Solti, singing the often omitted (for its great difficulty) 3rd Act tenor-baritone duet, giving London audiences their first opportunity to hear the role in its entirety. He was very popular in London and gave his last performance there in 1985, with Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor. In London he sang all his favourite roles: Il trovatore in 1965 with Ivo Vinco, Gwyneth Jones and Fiorenza Cossotto with Carlo Maria Giulini on the podium; in 1971 came Un ballo in maschera, then Aida, Tosca, and in 1981 L’elisir d’amore and Luisa Miller with Leo Nucci and Katia Ricciarelli.
In 1981 the Met organised a star-studded Bergonzi Gala to celebrate his 25 years at the opera house.
In 1992, at 68, he gave a recital at the Royal Opera House during which the theatre’s director, Jeremy Isaacs, presented him with a commemorative medal. His final London appearance was in 2001 when he received the prize as “Verdi Tenor of the Century” and, at 77, sang a duet from La traviata with Angela Gheorghiu, accompanied by Antonio Pappano.
In 1995 he officially ended his career with concerts in Vienna, Carnegie Hall, La Scala at the Theatre de l’Athénée in Paris, after which he continued his teaching career which was always important to him. In a 1993 interview with Fidelio Magazine he said,
Classical music ought to be put into the elementary schools to give the youngster a culture. We have to start from when the child first goes to school. If you change him there, you can give him a culture. You can’t take an adult who likes rock, and tell him he has to listen to symphonies. He won’t go any more at his age. You have to catch the children in elementary school and give them this instruction, and teach them solfeggio so they get excited about music.
On his 90th birthday the town of Busseto, where Verdi was born, put on an open-air concert in celebration.
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.