Carlo Bergonzi: Operatic tenor acclaimed for his golden tones, superb phrasing and his unrivalled interpretations of Verdi


Carlo Bergonzi, the greatest stylist among the postwar generation of tenors, entranced opera lovers in Europe and America for more than 40 years with his golden-toned voice and superlative phrasing. Although as an actor he limited his stage movements to a number of stock gestures, he imbued his vocal performance with such dramatic intensity that acting in the theatrical sense became irrelevant.

When he was not in good voice Bergonzi's attention could be taken up by his own problems; on those occasions when he was in really fine form, he brought an absolute involvement in the character, a total concentration on the music, that transported the listener.

It is appropriate that Bergonzi, who lived for most of his life in or near Busseto, the small town in Lower Emilia where Verdi also lived, should be remembered above all as a superb interpreter of Verdi. Though he sang in operas by Donizetti, Giordano, Puccini and other composers with much success, it was as Radames, Manrico, Don Alvaro (La forza del destino) and Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera), that he scored his greatest triumphs. These are roles often sung by tenors of more heroic mould than Bergonzi; he, however, used his lyric voice with such skill that he had no difficulty in encompassing them.

Bergonzi grew up in Vidalenza, a village a few miles from Busseto; he worked in a cheese-making factory, as a truck driver and in a bakery. After taking part as an extra in performances of Andrea Chénier and La Bohème at Busseto, he began to study singing with the baritone Edmondo Brandini.

In September 1943, while undergoing military service at Mantua, he was deported to Germany for anti-German activities and spent two years in a prison camp. Resuming his training, he studied at the Parma Conservatory with Ettore Campogalliani who, like Grandini, considered him a baritone. Bergonzi himself was not so sure, but made his debut in August 1948 at Varedo as Rossini's Figaro.

During the two years that he remained a baritone, Bergonzi sang various roles including Henry Ashton (Lucia di Lammermoor) and once, replacing an ailing Tito Gobbi, Rigoletto. Then in October 1950, while appearing as Sharpless (Madama Butterfly) at Livorno, he was warming up before a performance and found himself effortlessly reaching the high C. He was, as he had always suspected, a tenor.

After three months' study to re-place his voice, Bergonzi made his tenor debut on 12 January 1951 at Bari in the title role of Andrea Chénier. The year 1951 was the 50th anniversary of Verdi's death and Bergonzi sang in several of his operas, including Giovanna d'Arco and Simon Boccanegra, for Italian radio. At Catania in 1952 he sang Don Alvaro, the role which served for his London debut at the Stoll Theatre in 1953.

That year Bergonzi had made his first appearance at La Scala, in the title role of Jacopo Napoli's Masaniello. The tenor's relations with La Scala were not happy, though, and he sang there infrequently, apart from the period 1963-68, when he appeared each season.

If Milan did not appreciate his true worth, other cities, in Italy and abroad, certainly did. Having made his American debut in 1955 at Chicago as Luigi (Il Tabarro), followed by Turiddu (Cavalleria rusticana) and Avito (L'amore dei tre re), in 1956 he made a triumphant entry to the Metropolitan in New York as Radames in Aida. During 30 seasons at the Met he sang over 20 roles, and he also appeared at Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego and other US cities.

In London, Bergonzi was a most welcome visitor. He made his Covent Garden debut as Don Alvaro in 1962, returning regularly until 1985.

It is difficult to choose his finest role: Radames was probably the most popular, especially at the Verona Arena, where he appeared in at least seven different productions of Aida. Manrico was my own favourite among his heavier Verdi roles and I treasure the memory of a Trovatore performance in 1978 when the tenor, in magnificent voice, could do no wrong; his loving account of Don Alvaro's difficult music was always exemplary; but perhaps Riccardo, or King Gustavus as he becomes in Covent Garden's staging of Un ballo in maschera, was his finest Verdi interpretation.

The supremely stylish elegance of his singing suited the character perfectly; his fisherman's disguise might evoke a smile but his eloquence in the Barcarolle was wholly admirable. Among his non-Verdi roles, Nemorino in Donizettis L'elisir d'amore was easily the best; Bergonzi needed no special dramatic skill to portray the country boy in love, while his honeyed tone caressed the music.

Bergonzi's last appearance at Covent Garden was in 1985 as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, with Joan Sutherland as Lucia. By then over 60 the tenor, in superb form, could still give a lesson in bel canto to singers half his age. He continued, on occasion, to sing throughout the 1980s, finding congenial and not too heavy roles in Oronte (Il Lombardi), Foresto (Attila) and Jacopo (I due Foscari).

The last named was particularly apt as Bergonzi had for many years owned the hotel and restaurant of that name in Busseto, where he also gave master classes at the Accademia Verdiana and sponsored performances in the Piazza Verdi in which winners of the Voci Verdi competition took part. He himself was awarded the Verdi Gold Medal (1972) and the Caruso Prize (1981), as well as many other honours.

Bergonzi recorded a large number of complete operas but his greatest achievement on disc was undoubtedly Carlo Bergonzi sings Verdi, a collection of 31 arias from Oberto (1839) to Falstaff (1893), which demonstrates both the amazing stylistic changes in the composer's idiom over 44 years and the equally amazing feat of the tenor in mastering those changes.

Among Bergonzi's complete opera recordings I cherish Puccini's Edgar, in which he sings the title role like an angel, and also Ponchielli's Gioconda, in which he sings Enzo opposite Renate Tebaldi as Gioconda; Gioconda conjures up unforgettable, warm summer nights at Verona, when Bergonzi's smooth, limpid voice, effortlessly projected, would float to the far back row of the Arena, as he invoked the sky and sea in "Cielo e mar!"

Carlo Bergonzi, operatic tenor: born Vidalenzo, Italy 13 July 1924; married 1950 Adele Aimi (two sons); died 25 July 2014.