CARLO BERGONZI in memoriam (1924 - 2014  ) (all photos courtesy Charles Mintzer collection)
some personal memories by Jan Neckers


When one’s youth heroes disappear, one definitely realizes how old one has become. With Carlo Bergonzi’s disappearance the last giant of my operatic learning days has gone.
In my Flemish city of Mechelen there was no opera house. The nearest ones were De Munt in Brussels and the Koninklijke Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. At nine years of age I assisted to a performance of Cavalleria and Pagliacci in the latter city; in Dutch of course as were almost all performances. Though by  train the distance was slight, opera was not cheap and my blue collar family was rather poor. So this was the last real performance for many years to come. However my grandmother and my father liked great voices and the alternative was readily available at the movies. My first or second movie was That Midnight Kiss, introducing Mario Lanza. I saw Patrice Munsell in her Melba movie and Rudolf Schock in an impossible Tauber bio picture. And then there was national public radio (two channels in Dutch for Flemings and two in French for Walloons). Each channel would often broadcast operatic concerts and belcanto  programmes as there was a judicious mixture of popular and classical music. The stupid British idea of a Third Programme for connoisseurs had not taken root so that real music was still not banished to a niche channel while the later environmental pollution of rock and pop had not taken over the waves entirely as is now a sad reality. People were accustomed to hear real operatic voices; even if they didn’t like them overmuch. So it was radio and the weekly opera and belcanto programme that introduced Carlo Bergonzi to us. Compared to the old days nothing is nowadays the same as it used to be.

First and foremost; an operatic recital on a big label was an important and rare happening. French and German local or regional companies often launched a new star but Decca, HMV, Columbia or RCA did it very sparingly. Decca especially was not very generous. They had Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco and for a time that was enough. In Europe the label preferred the ten-inch MP for introducing young singers like Rafaele Arie, Gianni Poggi, Giuseppe Campora, Gino Penno and Flaviano Labo (who got a few extra arias on a 12 inch LP format for his introduction in the US) or even a 45 EP for Luciano Pavarotti in 1964. Therefore a tenor with a brand new recital on 12 inch had to be a great big star and arias from that recording popped up for months in radio programmes in 1958. In those days without internet and without subscriptions on Opera News or Opera Magazine (Flemish Public Radio did not even know of their existence in 1965 when I started working there) almost next to nothing was known of an artist. The sparing information on the sleeve note was all one got. Even a seasoned music journalist as the Dutchman Leo Riemens had no real clue as to the real importance of a singer. A guy with an LP recital was by definition a star on the boards of the Met or La Scala. We did not know Bergonzi was called “a useful addition to the ranks” and not more in New York. We did not know that at La Scala he had never sung one of the true great tenor parts. We did not even know he had sung Edgardo three years earlier in Antwerp in one of those Italian galas where third rate singers performed once or twice a year. And we had not the slightest idea of how the voice sounded in the house. Riemens who was elated with that Decca recital (and correct he was) wrote in a special article that the tenor was the possessor of “een enorm volume” (enormous volume). That quality would surely have come as a surprise to most Met visitors who often thought the Bergonzi voice was slightly underpowered compared with the stentorian sounds of Del Monaco and Tucker. I vividly remember too that several Bergonzi tracks were used in operatic quizzes on the radio and most of the time people would call in and give Del Monaco’s name as the singer though the two voices were markedly different.

bergozni2  bergonzi3

In 1959 life became somewhat better at home and consumer society started to make its mark. My father bought a Dual pick up and our first record was a highlights of La Bohème (Di Stefano, Callas). Records were still unbelievably expensive in those days. A blue collar worker had to work a whole day to buy a classic LP (nowadays one hour and a half in Flanders) and therefore salvation came with our Mechelen Record Library As a seventeen year old I succeeded in convincing the record librarian in purchasing Bergonzi’s recital and as there was now a small tape recorder at home I lent and recorded anything and everything that was called tenor, soprano, baritone, bass etc. I duly put them on tape at 9.5 centimetres per second but only Carlo Bergonzi and Franco Corelli got the 19 centimetres per second treatment. With Bergonzi I learned the meaning of style, of phrasing, of exuberance when possible and restraint when needed. I asked the library to purchase his complete recordings of Butterfly, Bohème and Aida and only got Verdi’s opera. Friends and colleagues from Antwerp took care of the Puccini recordings and on tape they went. I thus became a real Bergonzisto who couldn’t really understand why not everyone thought him to be a paragon of tenors. In the meantime modern times had arrived to Mechelen as well and in the library they had subscriptions to The Gramophone, Fonoforum (in German), Revue des disques (French) and Luister (Dutch). Articles on the sometimes strange policies of record labels never appeared as those magazines were dependent on their advertising acquirements for survival. I for instance tore every month into the magazines for news on my favourite tenor and almost every month I was disillusioned. Why did Del Monaco got a second Pagliacci and Cavalleria, a Tosca, a Tabarro, an Adriana Lecouvreur ? (Because he was a better seller, not a better singer). And why did those morons at Decca spewed out almost monthly a recital by that dreadful Kenneth McKellar I thought ? I even wrote a letter to The Gramophone to denounce this policy. I got a polite answer and  my letter was never published. In the midsixties things changed for the better. Thanks to RCA which ousted Tucker as he was not much of a household name in Europe and to the German Wirtschaftswunder that made Deutsche Grammophon once more an international label, Bergonzi was able to record some of his best roles. By that time I had even enough money to buy them instead of taping them.

bergonzi4 bergozni5

In  July 1968 a friend and me drove to Italy for the first time. In those days one could easily park next to the big Milan cathedral. The main store of Ricordi was just around the corner. Imagine my enthusiasm when I saw that wonderful record: “Canzone di Ieri ed Oggi con Carlo Bergonzi”. It was brand new and issued by the obscure Jaguar Label. On the record the tenor sang old favourites like Torna Piccina, Vivere, new songs like Strangers in the Night or Il Mondo and even his own composition (Alla mamma). By next year it had disappeared from all record shops and I’ve never seen another copy than my own. It was reissued twelve years later on RCA Italiana with two new songs (recorded in 68 as well) while two were deleted. That record too was a very limited issue. The strange thing is it is not even mentioned in the tenor’s discography on his official site and it remains the one and only recital by a major post world war tenor that never appeared on CD (even Ed Rosen didn’t succeed in pirating it). On that trip we drove to Venice and there I purchased my copy of Simon Boccanegra on Cetra where on hears the baritone just turned into tenor in a radio performance of 1951 (with Stella and Silveri). Then it was time for a visit to the Verona arena where we purchased tickets for a performance of Il Trovatore. During the afternoon of the performance I was not able to sit quiet for a moment from fear the thunder in the far away mountains would come near and take away my one and only (so I thought) chance of hearing my favourite tenor. The tempest stayed far away and I still remember I sighed of relief the moment I heard the beloved voice singing: “Deserto sulla terra.” My not so operatic minded friend afterwards said to me: “Now that’s a singer !”. In the vast space of the arena the voice was not overwhelmingly big but projected at ease and the phrasing and style were all there (including a real trill in “Ah si ben mio”). The audience was still 90 % Italian and those people knew their tenors. A lot of the elder Italians had vivid remembrances of Pertile, Merli, Lauri-Volpi and Gigli and discussed heatedly on the respective merits of José Soler, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli and Salvatore Puma. And generous with applause they were too. Piero Cappuccilli had to encore “Il Balen”. Leyla Gencer did not deign to give one but Bergonzi knew that any Manrico worth his salt would have to encore “Di quella pira” and so he duly did with firm high B’s in his own recomposition of the cabaletta (only sailing to the top note after and not together with the chorus). I can add that two Dutchmen seated behind us asked me if the tenor was any good. I replied he had only one rival in the world and they glowed with satisfaction as this meant for them money well spent. From that moment on I went on my yearly pilgrimage to the arena where Bergonzi sang from 1958 till 1975. In 1969 I twice went to the Aida performances at a time when tourists were still rare and one could easily obtain tickets for the season’s opening only a day in advance. Other singers were Rita Orlandi, Fiorenza Cossotto and Mario Zanasi. The year afterwards there was a wonderful weekend with Placido Domingo and Raina Kabaivanska in Manon Lescaut, Franco Corelli and Adriana Lazzarini in Carmen and Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi and Mario Zanasi in La Traviata. Though he recorded the role of Alfredo for Decca in 1961 this was the first time he sang it on scene. To be honest, he was a far better and convincing actor in his 19th century attire than in most of his historical costumes. In 1971 I was not able to travel to Italy but I still had my Bergonzi-evening as he came to Ghent. He told a journalist this was his second performance in the city and everybody thought he was just telling nonsense as he had never sung in Ghent but of course he mixed it up with his Antwerp performance everybody had forgotten about until the eagle eyed Rudi van den Bulck discovered that fact many years later. Bergonzi sang a heavenly Verdi Requiem at the magnificent medieval Sint-Baafscathedral (where that masterpiece of Flemish painting Het Lam Gods by Jan van Eyck is on display). The fee structure displayed the real hierarchy in the operatic world. Bergonzi got the double amount of money conductor Lorin Maazel received and almost thrice the sum paid to Teresa Zylis-Gara and Nicolai Ghiuselev. By that time I had been a subscriber for seven years to Opera Magazine and had often replied to ads telling us of unheard vocal treasures in the possession of some smart sharks who would send you tapes in exchange for fat dollars; the best known among them being Ed Rosen and Mr. Tape. Not all of those tapes I acquired are nowadays to be found on CD-R or commercial CD’s. I don’t think the Rossini Petite Messe Solenelle with Martina Arroyo and Justino Diaz has found its way on CD. And up to now I’m still waiting for the Inno delle Nazione to appear on DVD as the tenor sang it on RAI TV in 1968 (I’ve got the sound recording and photographs taken from the screen) as part of the Toscanini commemoration. Some of his best operatic concerts too (Munich and Berlin in the sixties) should appear as the voice was still fresh and the top notes were secure in  arias from Werther or Turandot.


My wife and me were back at the arena in 1973. By that time the voice was slowly changing. It was amazing that after so many strenuous roles like Chénier, Alvaro, Manrico the middle voice was even more glowing with beauty, with more silvery overtones than in his earlier days. He proved himself a formidable technician too. Twice during that visit we went to a Gioconda performance (with Angeles Gulin, Luigi Roni and wobbly Cornell MacNeil) and twice Bergonzi encored a long and difficult aria like“Cielo e mar”. Within a few seconds after the encore he sailed into “Deh non tremar” without fear or even the smallest hint of vocal tiredness. In 1974 it was once more Radames (with Liljana Molnar-Talajic and Fiorenza Cossotto) and Regietheater had come to the arena. The Sphinx monument in the set had the head of Henry Kissinger and that most horrible cliché (references to nazi Germany) made its appearance. The tenor was excellent and I have never known him to give a bad performance at Verona but for the first time I noticed a slight flattening at the top of the voice. The year afterwards he was a most musical Alvaro (with Molnar-Talajic, Renato Bruson, Bonaldo Giaiotti and the hilarious Renato Capecchi as Melitone) but this time there was no denying a fact of life anymore: every B was sung flat. At the same time there appeared his much admired three LP-album with Verdi-arias on Philips which I bought at Verona and which would only be available in the autumn in the rest of Europe. I enjoyed it very much but I was very surprised that by that time he had become so sanctified that no critic in his review of the album referred to the clearly audible flatness. Anyway, the powers that be in Verona heard it too and he was not offered a contract for 1976. The loggionisti at La Scala heard it as well and they had no qualms in yelling “sei stonato” (you are singing flat) at his Aida performances. With the exception of a few recitals he was not invited in an operatic role any more at the Milan theatre. I once again caught up with him in 1978 at Bregenz where he gave a magnificent recital with piano. 16 songs and arias (Roi d’Ys and La Juive-transposed) and of course van Beethovens “Zärtliche Liebe” and Schubert’s “Wanderlied”. (I’ve got the recital on CD-R). At first the audience sniggered a few seconds when they heard his funny pronunciation but soon they were enraptured with the sheer beauty of sound and many a spectator would have loved to hear him sing a Lieder cycle, funny German or not. By that time he had become such a superior performer that the biggest impression he made was by the most modest means. In that fine song “Chiove” about a sick man whose illness is matched by the rain outside the tenor sent shivers in the audience by the way he half sung half said “Jesus, Maria, how it rains, how it rains”. Afterwards I went to the restaurant where he was having supper with his wife and we spoke for a quarter of an hour. Most of our conversation centred on practical things like addresses, phone numbers, time slots, performance data as I intended to write and to produce a television history of Italian belcanto and I much wanted him to participate (nothing came of it). But a real Bergonzisto doesn’t limit himself to practical details and I asked him if he collected his own performances. He did he said but he regretted he himself had no recordings of his Luigi and Avito (Chicago 1955) and his Met Don José’s. In the late seventies and early eighties a lot of Bergonzi stuff appeared on LP as he made many recitals for different companies. Fine though they were I could and can only regret no firm during his heydays thought of offering him a second operatic one and without a small Spanish firm we would even be without his Neapolitan song recital of 1972. In 1981 he came back for a long recital at the Ghent opera which was a real triumph. Still the flatness was now more obvious than ever (from high A on) but style, sound and phrasing were still there. Nevertheless I had somewhat the feeling that kuddoos were not always given for the performances itself but for the name and the sheer fact he was the only one left of the New Golden Age of Singing. The last time I heard him was at Vienna in a concert performance of Mefistofele in 1990 with Sam Ramey, Josella Ligi and Fiamma Izzi d’Amico. His indisposition was announced before the concert and everybody could ask his or her money back if they wanted. Nobody moved and Bergonzi sang most musical without going above the staff (and therefore cutting off all possible flat notes). In the second performance he was replaced by Giorgio Lamberti. That was my last Bergonzi experience as I wanted to keep the great singer before my eyes and not the old man who tenaciously clung to a lifelong addiction to applause. John Steane summed it up when he wrote that fine though some of his later concerts were, one would nevertheless prefer not to hear the recorded evidence afterwards. By the mid nineties we all thought it was more than time for a good English language biography. The first to contact him was Larry Lustig, editor of The Record Collector. Larry got the surprising answer that Bergonzi didn’t consider his career to be over. Twelve years ago I made a second attempt. I had indeed added a few articles I had written on his career and art and I didn’t even get an answer. A few years ago I was contacted by some British people who had read my long biography and discussion of his records on (click here)They knew his wife Adele well  and they hoped to consult a lot of original sources in the tenor’s possession. As far as I know nothing came of that too but I still have hopes the family will be happy to have a book written about him now that the tenor’s life has come to an end. We need a good biography, warts and all included as the career was less smooth and often more interestingly than often thought. Ah, but old I (and probably a lot of his admirers) feel now that our beloved Bergonzi has gone. And I hope high above us he finally gets over his “Corellitis” as Bob Herman (assistant of Rudolf Bing) called it.

bergonzi7 (with Adele his wife)