CARLO BERGONZI – Il Tenore di Verdi by Vittorio testa

161 pages; Edizioni Diabasis Parma. About 18 Eur + Click here to order the book or Click here to order the book in Italy

Click here to listen to a unique recording of Bergonzi singing Verdi's Inno delle Nazioni

An interesting little book on the tenor by a personal friend; almost “as told by Bergonzi” to the author. Therefore do not expect a balanced view on the singer and his career. There is no chronology which would make the book longer and more expensive though this would prove how the career slowly went downhill (a reality that is not covered in the text). The discography is more or less complete in the information of the tenor’s live (Il Corsaro is lacking) and official recordings though none of his many recitals are mentioned. Discussion of the voice is avoided most of the time. Everything is sublime with a few small exceptions. The author is a journalist and has collaborated to a weekly broadcast on opera and belcanto and if he treated singers like he reviews Bergonzi he was probably very much appreciated as even small criticism isn’t part of his vocabulary.

Bad introduction

The book doesn’t start out well. There is an introduction by another far more famous culture journalist (Alberto Mattioli) who admits having heard Bergonzi just once; in 1985 in Lucia when Bergonzi was 61 and the voice had been in slow decline for ten years. There must be dozens of more competent journalists who heard Bergonzi during his heydays but maybe their names mean less in Italy. I am a Fleming and didn’t live in New York or Italy but still I clock up 10 performances (Trovatore, Aida, Traviata, Gioconda, Forza, Requiem) and one concert during his great days and one concert and a performance (Mefistofele) during his twilight years. Mr. Mattioli immediately reminds us Bergonzi sang the B flat in “Celeste Aida” “pianissimo e morendo” as Verdi wanted it.  It’s a treat I missed in the three Aidas I saw (2 in 1969 and 1 in 1974). He opted for the forte version on his debut recital and on his fine 1959 performance on Decca with Tebaldi, Simionato and Karajan. Yes, sometimes he went for pianissimo (the Philips Verdi box)  but they were exceptions.

Click here to listen to his Radames (Verona 1966) + here (Tokyo 1973)


Son of a very small hamlet

Now the book proper. It starts out with a  theme which proves “Il campanilismo” (the church tower mentality) is alive and well. Time and again Testa reminds us of the unique mentality, work ethic etc. from Bassa Parmense (lower part of the Parma region). For twenty consecutive years I visited the North of Italy and I doubt there are big differences between say people from higher or lower Parma though I remember the uproar in the nineties when the government tried to put away with the name of provinces on car licences. Unacceptable that an Italian could no longer see which part of the country the owner belonged to. More important to me seems the fact Bergonzi was born in Vidalenzo; a small hamlet of Polesine Parmense. Even nowadays it has less than 300 inhabitants. Imagine what this meant at his birth and during his youth: probably strict social control, a lot of gossip, a mixture of profound Catholicism and superstition (very much Bergonzi-traits) and at the same time warmth, security and cooperation. Father Antonio was a cheesemaker at a small company and a heavy smoker. Bergonzi smoked too as did every male of his time though he wouldn’t have dreamt to have his picture taken with a cigarette in his hand as Franco Corelli did for a record sleeve. People of Vidalenzo were of peasant stock. They were sturdy if they survived illnesses, extreme poverty and war as proven by Bergonzi’s 90 years after decades of singing strenuous roles, travelling and a lot of bypasses. Vidalenzo is only a few kilometres to the north of Verdi’s Sant’Agata and Busseto while to the east there is Brescello; the famous village of Don Camillo and Peppone. Once again there is the story of father taking 7 year old Carlo to a performance of Il Trovatore at Busseto with the future tenor so impressed by thrice repeated “Di quella pira” he sang the aria the day after using a kitchen utensil as a sword. Father liked “la lirica” though there were no records in the house and not a radio. Even in 1947 the young aspiring singer often would visit the one “negozio (tabac shop and bar included)” in Vidalenzo where there was a phone and a radio to listen to concerts and opera performances. Bergonzi only went to elementary school and at eleven he joined his father in the cheese firm. No records and no radio at home; thus no music? Far from it. I have fine reminiscences of the sixties where older people in the villages met in warm summer evenings and individually or collectively sang for hours themselves as they had done in their youth. Young Bergonzi too enjoyed these moments. As many young Italian males he got his first music education in his small local church where at twelve he sang in the church choir and even had a small solo.

A voice discovered at 14 ???

Then it was back to work. His salary at the cheese firm amounted to 5 lire a week; enough to buy half a kilo of meat. He laboured at the side of his father for several years, singing in his free time or at work all kind of popular songs we know so well from recitals by famous tenors. In 1938 he assisted to an open air performance of La Traviata in Busseto’s piazza. Baritone Edmondo Grandini, a local hero, sang Giorgio Germont. Bergonzi was so impressed he could barely sleep. Next day he returned to Busseto, took his courage in his hands and asked Grandini how he could become a singer himself. The baritone probably showed pity to the 14 year old shy and nevertheless determined youngster and agreed to listen to him in the small opera theatre, accompanying at the piano. “Carletto” sang one of his favourites: “O primavera” by Tirindelli which he later would often sing in his concerts. Grandini heard some promise though one wonders if one can judge a voice at 14. The author doesn’t tell us if the voice was still a soprano or had changed. Anyway, Bergonzi told Testa he would always  remember the most important day in his life: the 19th of August 1938. He was once more working at his cheese factory and singing out when the boss interrupted him. Not in a rude way, but saying: “either you work or you sing”. Bergonzi went to see his father and exclaimed he wanted to go home as he aspired to be a singer. That evening the war council at home gathered to discuss his future. The author (or maybe Bergonzi himself) is not entirely clear on the reasoning behind his parents’ decision to give him green light. Probably they knew they would only lose 5 lire a week and maybe music offered some career improvements as a boy with only elementary school couldn’t look forward to something better than manual work. Anyway it was not he would pass his days in leisure as he now could spend hours at home farming. Therefore he got permission to study with Grandini as a paying student. I doubt Grandini took Bergonzi seriously but money is money and the baritone had some real talented older singers as well. In April 1939 (not even fifteen years of age) he and five other Grandini students concertized at the Busseto theatre. Bergonzi once more sang “O primavera” and added Tosti’s “Ideale”. As he was already called a baritone we have to assume his voice broke early. There was a lot of applause for this young neighbour most of the audience knew well though the real star was a very promising 25 year old tenor: Giacinto Prandelli.


At the Conservatorio

(with Alfredo Kraus)

Bergonzi understood that instead of sessions only with Grandini real studies would greatly advance a career in music and there was always the possibility of becoming a music teacher. After six years he once more plummeted into books for months and studied for an entrance examination at the Parma Conservatory. He was admitted still not eighteen. Bergonzi started out at 4 a.m with farm duties, took a bus, a train and was on time for his lessons. In the evening he arrived at home for dinner, studied and went to sleep at 11 p.m. During that year at Parma he met the great talent of the Conservatorio though being four years older she was far more advanced with her studies: Renata Tebaldi. Bergonzi had classes in music theory, score reading and playing a piano to accompany himself. It comes as a small surprise the author tells us the tenor was often at the piano when Italian singers partied in New York (with Pavarotti singing). His voice teacher in Parma was the famous Ettore Campogalliani and he agreed with Grandini that Bergonzi was a baritone. The tenor later told he himself had some doubts but at his young age teachers could easily mix up voice categories. Bergonzi sometimes didn’t eat to save money to see performances. He remembered a Pertile Otello and a Gigli Un Ballo.


The author doesn’t give us a clue as to Bergonzi’s view on fascism but the family must have looked with apprehension at what was happening in the outside world. Italy had entered the second world war in 1940 and it soon became clear the Italian army was unprepared and in bad shape though Italian soldiers were not cowards and often fought well. Italy’s invasion of Greece turned into a disaster until Hitler helped out. The same happened in North Africa where Italians started out from their Libyan colony towards British occupied Egypt and once more the Germans had to flock to the rescue. Bergonzi knew the inevitable future was dark and dangerous and it started in the summer of 1943 when he began his military service. At that time Italy still sang and army officers liked singers. Witness the preferential treatment young American soprano Cecilia Calos got in occupied Athens by Italians with whom she learned her impeccable Italian. Witness promising tenor Mario Del Monaco not having to serve with the Italian divisions in Russia where 115.000 Italian soldiers died. Witness promising young baritone Carlo Bergonzi posted in Mantova (of Rigoletto fame) were he was temporarily in safety thanks to Campogalliani who could continue to give him some lessons. Still Bergonzi knew he wouldn’t escape the war as the Allies had invaded Sicily and soon appeared on the mainland. The war turned into a disaster and Mussolini was ousted and arrested while the king and the new Italian government announced they would stay allies of Germany. In reality they secretly negotiated with the Allies asking for an armistice which was announced on the 8th of September 1943. The Germans didn’t trust their Italian allies anymore and immediately they invaded the country. In an act of cowardice king and government fled to the south behind the lines of the Allies who had landed a few days earlier. They didn’t gave clear instructions to Italian soldiers with the result that some regiments fought the Germans, others disbanded or surrendered. The Germans soon entered Mantova where a feverish Carlo Bergonzi was rounded up and put into a cattle wagon with other soldiers. After three days the train reached the camp of Neubrandenburg in the North of Germany. In the meantime Italy had declared war on Germany and was hesitatingly accepted by the Allies as a co-belligerent though only Sicily and a part of Southern Italy was liberated.


Initially Italian soldiers were treated as prisoners of war but that soon changed. The Germans considered the Italians as traitors to a common cause. They pushed them to continue the war as soldiers of the newly found Republica Sociale by Mussolini in the north of Italy or to serve in the many foreign battalions of the German army. 10 % of 800.000 captured Italians accepted German proposals. The Germans considered the remaining 720.000 Italians to be cowards and acted accordingly. Italian soldiers were no longer considered to be prisoners of war but were “military internees” who had no rights under the convention of Geneva and couldn’t look forward to help from Red Cross. In the autumn of 1944 they even lost their military status and were from that moment on civil workers subjected to harsh and dangerous work. They were treated badly without enough food and their cloths were not adopted to cold winters. Another 100.000 prisoners accepted to return to Italy working for the Mussolini republic. Some 620.000 Italians stayed in German camps among them soldier Bergonzi. He was not as one could read with former Opera editor Alan Blyth a resistance fighter but neither did he serve in the fascist republic. For 600 days Bergonzi started the ugliest days of his life. The author tells us the tenor never forgot these experiences and sometimes didn’t even want to talk about it. On a radio show the normally courteous Bergonzi cut short an interview when questions were raised. Anyway Testa succeeded in obtaining a lot of information. The tenor never forgot the rude German orders that awoke him and his companions at five o’clock in the morning. Back breaking work till six in the evening with a bit of rancid bread as food, more and more freezing temperatures . “Una violenza bestiale”; “due anni di inferno”; “noi dis-umano” (beastly violence, two years of hell, we Untermenschen) are some of the words used by Bergonzi.  On Christmas Eve 1943 he sang Schubert’s Ave Maria for his companions and encored it at the request of his Austrian catholic guard. As a reward he got a piece of pane and two “zoccoli” (wooden shoes). On that formidable and not well known LP “Canzone di ieri e oggi” (it was not even mentioned on his own website) there is a song by composer Carlo Bergonzi aptly named “Alla mamma” and composed during his prison days. In an interview he would later tell Opera magazine that apart from his cheese making days he drove a truck. Thanks to Testa we now know he performed that job in German service for a long time; driving at 35 kms an hour between his camp and the German port of Rostock. In March 1945 Bergonzi got ill and was very weakened. He suspected typhoid but medicines were not available and the Germans were not interested as by that time the Soviet Army had already crossed the Oder and was near. On the 28 th of April the Soviets liberated the camp and the Italians were afraid. How would the Soviets treat them? As prisoners of Germany or as former soldiers of a country that invaded the Soviet Union at the side of Hitler? The Italians did what they could do best. They organized a welcome concert for the Soviet soldiers. Bergonzi sang several arias; “Una furtiva lagrima” among them (probably singing it in a lower key). A Russian captain congratulated him and spoke some Italian (It is possible. The generation who had admired and applauded the annual visits of great Italian singers to imperial Russia was still much alive). He sent a Soviet doctor who treated Bergonzi for typhoid. Stalin at last authorized Italian prisoners to leave for home but Bergonzi was put in quarantine. The last train for Italy arrived at night and some companions got him out in the darkness and saved him. He arrived home on the 13th of September 1945; seeing for a few seconds fifteen year old Adele Aimi, daughter of the one Vidalenzo shop. His parents barely recognized him; worn out and weighing only 36 kilo.



After a long convalescence he returned to Parma to finish his studies and in 1948 (he had already started his career) he obtained a diploma in singing and piano. As a musician Bergonzi was more sophisticated and better trained than many a great singer before him (Ezio Pinza) or after him (Luciano Pavarotti) who couldn’t sing from a score.  In 1947 Bergonzi went to Milan and stayed there for a time with a cousin doing the rounds of the impresario’s. He later admitted he often thought of coming home to take on his old cheese maker’s profession. He later called his voice a “baritonetto” and understood people were not impressed by his auditions. Finally he got an engagement at Varedo in the province of Monza; a small town with 10.000 inhabitants. Accompanied by an uncle he set out. They took a train but the last 14 kilometres they went on foot. He sang Figaro in Il Barbiere with an orchestra of five in August 1947.  For many years due to voluntary misinformation by Decca’s sleeve notes this début was transferred to Lecce in 1948; though still as Figaro. With his Varedo fee he could buy his train ticket but still it was the first time anyone paid him for singing. In official chronologies (not used by Testa) we find him a few days later as Schaunard in Catania in an open air performance of La Bohème. Testa writes Bergonzi was signed by an impresario that sent him on a tour with a company in small theatres in Puglia. Of course we would have liked to know more on those days but that’s all we get. In a chronology made by The Record Collector’s editor Larry Lustig I note once more 4 performances of Schaunard in the Teatro Bellini in Catania in November 1947. I wonder if the star of those evenings remembered him: Renata Tebaldi.  The well-known impresario Mario Colombo took pity on the struggling singer and helped him to get engagements. There is an interesting list of his 18 baritone roles in this book. Bergonzi sang title roles but was a comprimario as well (Metifio in Arlesiano or Sonora in Fanciulla). I’m sure he sang the rabbino and not Fritz Kobus in Amico Fritz as Testa writes. Sometimes his name pops up in chronologies in more important theatres. In 1948 he sang Belcore to Tagliavini’s Nemorino in Parma. Next year we find him in the same role with veteran Schipa in Cremona where he sang in Mignon as well. In 1950 one sees him once again in Parma in Pagliacci and Cavalleria. The same year he is back with Belcore and Schipa in rather small theatres. Important that year is a Madama Butterfly in a small theatre in Milan in July. This is part of the Bergonzi legend. For many years he told he was vocalizing and all at once he struck a high C. That was the moment he realized he was a tenor. In old age he admitted in reality he already had his doubts on his real voice long before but the C only told him his intuition was correct. Somewhat embittered he later remembered conductors as Serafin and Gavazzeni (who had worked with him as a baritone) telling him they always knew he was a tenor. “Why didn’t they say it then ?” he mused. His last outing as a baritone was a performance as Marcello with Rina and Beniamino Gigli (60 years) as Rodolfo in Ferrara in September 1950. Bergonzi was surprised Gigli took his meals alone while his daughter was seated a few tables further. Rina explained Gigli never spoke a word one day and a half before a performance. Good advice Bergonzi would follow for the rest of his career (So did Del Monaco. Pertile once whispered: “Are you mad?” when Miguel Fleta asked in full voice how life was). Just before or just after La Bohème Bergonzi married Adele Aimi. She was twenty and he 26 and during his stays in Vidalenzo he regularly met her when phoning at her parents’ shop. Testa gives us this information in the middle of his book and assumes by that time we have probably forgotten he told us Bergonzi got notice of the birth of his son Maurizio while making his début as a tenor on the 12th of January 1951. For once the author is very discreet but one can imagine reactions and gossip in Vidalenzo in those days when catholic morale preached hell and damnation on sexual intimacy before marriage. I remember the outcry in Italy in late sixties when journalists wrote a book on “Sesso in confesso” (Sex in confession). They had made false confessions and written down the reactions of priests who stressed the importance of the girl being “pura siccome un angelo”. For young men they advised…to visit a brothel. Bergonzi sang his last performance at almost the same time.



 He decided to switch to tenor and he told the author his wife had a very good ear and always told him frankly what she thought of his performances. Thus when he started his transformation she immediately noticed there was something strange to his vocalizing. According to him he sent his wife in a time honoured way in Roman language countries to her parents to give birth. I wonder how much of this is truth. Adele had still four months to go and it strikes me as a little bit early to leave for Vidalenzo. It’s probably more near reality the young couple barely survived on his meagre fees and with Adele away money could be saved. Bergonzi always told his only instrument was a diapason as renting a piano was too expensive. He gave himself the middle A the orchestra uses to fine tune their instruments and added a quarter of a tone each day. It’s not in the book but by that time he did what all singers do and what most of them categorically deny: listening to records  (Pertile and Gigli complete performances leant to him by a friend). The tenor told Testa he visited an absent impresario, put himself at the piano and the moment the guy appeared at his front door Bergonzi started to play and sing “Un di all’azurro spazio”. “Se non è vero, è bene trovato!” though in my opinion it smacks a bit too much of the first Mario Lanza appearance on film in “That Midnight Kiss”. According to Bergonzi the impresario who knew him was duly impressed and offered him a run of Aida’s in Piacenza. Too much in the vicinity of Vidalenzo the new tenor thought and accepted a series of Andrea Chénier at the Teatro Petruzelli in Bari. I have visited the theatre before it was put to ashes by the local ndrangeta and it reflected Bergonzi had made quite an impression as the opera house was not a small unimportant theatre but one of the glories of the Puglia. Typical for the days and the Italian men of yore was the fact Bergonzi left for Bari knowing his wife could give birth during his performances though at the time men were not asked or even welcome to assist. The author never mentions the often told story by Bergonzi that at his return he showed reviews and Adele thought those journalists were idiots writing he was a splendid Chénier while she was sure he had sung the role of Carlo Gérard. I wonder if that story was not made up later by publicity agents while she knew very well his change of register. After three performances of the French poet he got an offer from RAI radio to take part in the Verdi celebrations on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s decease. Still it strikes me as strange that in the rest of 1951 we have not been able to trace a single performance anywhere in a theatre. His next outing was on May (not March) the 26th with a radio performance of Giovanna d’Arco; starring Renata Tebaldi and Rolando Panerai. There is the voice of a tenor struggling to come out of a baritone corset but a sense of Verdi style and fine phrasing is already there. A member of Opera-L wrote RAI used tape for their performances with excellent results but then wiped them and stored the performance on acetate. Tape was deemed too expensive and had to be used again which explains the somewhat constricted sound of his RAI-performances. As a television and radio producer at Flemish Public Corporation I know that even in 1973 concerts with Benelli, Pobbe, Cappuccilli, Fernandi, Malaspina, Antonioli, Dominguez etc. etc. were still wiped. The sense of style that always accompanied Bergoni-reviews could sometimes be notably absent. His next assignment was as Canio on RAI where he easily competed with Gigli in the amount of sobs. Testa writes Bergonzi substituted for another tenor (no name given). His later performances on RAI in Simon Boccanegra and I Due Foscari have appeared on records and there is only a Forza of July 1951 probably resting in the vaults. Anyway there is no explanation why a young unknown tenor got such exposure on RAI after having sung only three performances in the theatre. Was he a good study? was he cheap? Remarkably is the fact that in that whole operatic RAI-year there is not a single performance with the great Italian stars of the moment like Del Monaco, Di Stefano, Tagliavini. Tenor roles were given to good and promising young voices like Penno, Prandelli, Valletti and lesser lights as Bertocci, Berdini, Binci, Campagnano but the big boys were absent. 

Click here to listen to Bergonzi in Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle (Carnegie hall 1966)


Some myths

So far so good. That’s where reality ends in the book and more and more cedes towards myths. Of course these are a friend’s reminiscences and Testa takes Bergonzi’s words at face value. Witness the story of Bergonzi’s début at the Met. The tenor told Testa he sang at a spa in France where Del Monaco was in the audience. The older tenor was so enthusiastic he offered two of his Met-performances (Aida and Il Trovatore) to the younger singer and the deal was concluded with a handshake. Rudolf Bing’s ghost probably will be very surprised to learn it was Del Monaco who made casting decisions at the Met.

(Bergonzi and Del Monaco in NY)

Moreover why would Del Monaco give away a role as Manrico which he shunned and had already thrown in the dustbin three years earlier? In my Bergonzi profile on this site I have written a lot on the negotiations between Roberto Bauer (the Met’s representative in Europe) and the tenor and his agent Lidouino Bonardi who almost succeeded in wrecking his client’s career. Testa tells us Bergonzi said he was paid a small fee. Bergonzi at the time was almost unknown in New York though one year earlier he had made his US début in Chicago with less glamourous roles in Il Tabarro and L’Amore dei Tre Re. Still the pay books of the Met reveal us that the unknown tenor got 750$ a performance while the most famous baritone of that moment -Tito Gobbi of recording fame-  had to do with 100 dollars less. Mr. Testa too writes the New York Times (not the racist newspaper of today who uses a capital B for Black and a small w for white) lauded that début as : “the Radames Verdi dreamed off”. There must have been another New York Times in those days as my copy has an article “Opera: Two Met’ Debuts” (Stella and Bergonzi)” that sounds somewhat different: “Signor Bergonzi’s voice is essentially a lyric tenor of larger than ordinary dimensions. It is a well-schooled voice and it has a suave legato. The tenor sings accurately and with musical sensibility. In “Celeste Aida” he followed the now accepted routine of taking the final B flat fortissimo and he carried it off. And if he keeps on resisting the temptation to force his voice should grow naturally into the size for the dramatic repertory.”

(Del Monaco visiting Bergonzi backstage after a performance of Werther)

Other stories in the book told by Bergonzi at the end of his life are not always correct or a little bit aggrandizing. Take the tenor’s clash with Karajan on Pagliacci. Bergonzi told Testa the conductor wanted him very much for Canio but the tenor refused with the argument that the role was too early for his voice at the time: “E troppo presto per farla in teatro e sopratutto alla Scala.”  Nevertheless he sang it in his debut year; granted in front of a microphone. But anyone who saw his performances, knew that as an actor he was somewhat subdued and often concentrated solely on singing. Even at the most dramatic moment in Aida (trio third act) or Il Trovatore (Just before “Di quella pira) Bergonzi would only consent to a dignified trot. In fact he refused to run on a stairs as one producer wanted. So it wouldn’t be for dramatic intensity or the heaviness of the role he seemingly refused. There is the reality too he performed Canio in Palermo in 1952, sang it again in 1959 and 1962 at the Met. He recorded the role with Karajan in 1965 and the conductor didn’t easily forgive a singer’s refusal. I therefore doubt the singer’s story. I suppose the real reason was tenor vanity. Karajan didn’t take the pains to ask it himself but sent his factotum von Mattoni. What is true, and it’s our loss, Bergonzi cancelled the filming of the Verdi Requiem because the filming days were changed and overlapped with an earlier commitment. It’s to Bergonzi’s honour he kept his original engagement and Karajan asked a young and promising tenor in Bergonzi’s place: Luciano Pavarotti.


Franco Corelli: “l’amico-rivale”?

I have an inkling a lot of people will howl with delight reading Testa’s pages on Bergonzi’s relations with “amico-rivale” Franco Corelli. “Nemico-rivale” will probably be nearer the truth. Corelli called Bergonzi “padrone” and Bergonzi retorted in a letter to the Met’s management with “urlatore”. “Another case of Corellitis” was the reaction on the Met’s part. Testa seriously writes Bergonzi (according to second son Marco) went to the rescue of Corelli when the tenor had qualms about singing Manrico in New York. Bergonzi put himself at the piano and took Corelli through the difficult moments of the score. According to Marco Bergonzi exclaimed: “Don’t hesitate to call me when you are in difficulties” and “ If your voice had my technique, you would be the greatest tenor in history”. If there is one millimetre of truth in that story, one would have loved to see Corelli’s face at that moment. Even more silly is the version Corelli was once more in difficulties in ….1981 (six years after -with the exceptions of two Bohèmes- he had finished his career). After a lesson of an hour Corelli would have exclaimed he had never sang a better “Nessun dorma”. A last example of myth making concerns Bergonzi’s Gala evening in 1981 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Met debut. Testa “forgets” to mention Bergonzi gave a press conference bitterly lamenting the fact he was not on the Met’s roster and therefore would never be able to celebrate with his New York fans. Luciano Pavarotti was scandalized and pressured the Met management to make amends. The Met relented as by that time Pavarotti was mightier than any manager. More nearer truth is the sad story of Bergonzi’s Otello at the age of 76. Here we have a testimony by wife Adele who told her husband this was madness but stubborn as an ox he went forward and had to stop after a humiliating second act. In fact I once talked with a friend of the Bergonzi’s (sorry, I don’t remember the name anymore) who said to me that Adele already told Bergonzi it was time to quit in 1990 (64 years of age) or otherwise he would ruin his reputation.


The man

(the Bergonzis at the inauguration of the piazza Carlo Bergonzi)

More real and interesting are the stories of Bergonzi’s preparations. We already know he didn’t speak for at least one day and a half before a performance. He was very punctual; always arriving two hours before an appearance in the house or the concert hall. The first thing he did was putting a small figurine of a mythical figure on his dressing table. Then came photographs of his parents, his wife, his children and a picture of Saint-Anthony of Padua; his patron saint whom he believed had saved his life in a car crash in 1953. Slowly he started to vocalize. Half an hour before the performance everybody had to leave as he intensely wanted to concentrate on his music. Just before going on stage he kissed his photographs and asked the assistance of Saint-Anthony. His wife told Testa Bergonzi was an exemplary loving husband though jealous. But she called herself “gelossisima” and he very well knew she scrupulously controlled his “acting” during love duets with beautiful soprano’s. According to Adele he was not an exuberant man telling her every day he loved her but he was friendly, rarely lost his temper and was faithful. His sons added they were a bit cross because he always tipped generously telling them: “If you have been poor like me you know wat poverty means.” The author remembers the singer’s sad last days and his farewell at the hospital where the 90 year old man took leave of him with his last words: “it’s over”. Don’t expect Testa to lecture on Bergonzi’s voice, its evolution and its weaknesses. There is not a single sentence on the flatness I noticed in 1974 (already notable on his Philips recording of Verdi aria’s) and the slow deterioration. As one critic wrote after one of his many farewell concerts: “It was magnificent in the concert hall for a man of his age but I don’t want to hear a recording off it in the silence of my music room”. This is not the aim of Testa. The book is meant as an homage to one of the greatest tenors of the 20th century and nowadays there is not one singer who reaches up to Bergonzi’s knees. This little book is especially strong on Bergonzi’s youth and can serve as a nice introduction to a real biography if that is still possible.

Jan Neckers, november 2020