Carlo Bergonzi Part Two

By Jan Neckers

I.3. The Twilight Zone 1975-2006

During one of his performances of Radames at the arena in 74 I found him in very good voice (he almost never gave a bad performance there) but with a  tendency to sing flat above the stave. In previous seasons when pushing on certain notes there had been a few hints in that direction but now it was somewhat more clearly noticeable. Next year he sang his incomparable Alvaro and the gliding towards his A's and B's was once more a little bit clear. During this yearly pilgrimage to Verona I had seen his new three-record-Verdi-album and purchased it. At last a major company had once more recorded him in aria's. (In 72 and 73 there appeared solo records of Neapolitan songs and arie antiche and -one almost says of course -it was a small Spanish label that took the risk). Back at home I played his formidable album and immediately realized that his time had come. Everything from high A on was slightly  pushed and on the way towards his B's there were some flat sounds. The strange thing was that every critic enthusiastically raved about these records (and they were right) but didn't have the courage, or didn't want to hear that not everything was perfect anymore. . It was one of those historical years. I heard Corelli for the last time in the flesh (he would only sing two Bohémes in 76 and then disappear for ever) and with the exception of a concert, it was the last time Bergonzi would sing in Verona. They were middle aged men and place and time was for the younger singers. At the Met Pavarotti and Domingo had taken over and Bergonzi didn't have a contract in 73 and 74 though that was due to tax problems with the American IRS. Everybody at that time expected him to sing for a few good years and then gracefully retire, but it was neither gracefulness or retiring that he was thinking of. In January 76 he had performances of Aida at La Scala for which initially he hadn't been scheduled. The first act was a disaster for him as some of the connoisseurs didn't temper their opinion. There were loud cries of "Sei stonato(You're singing flat)". Thereafter he improved (the live CD-s therefore are a mixture of the second night first-act and the first night's second, third and fourth acts) but he would never again be invited to sing another opera at La Scala which embittered him immensely. That same year in June the well-known Busseto-Amici di Verdi honoured 83-year old Giacomo Lauri-Volpi who of course responded with a 'La donna è mobile' in the Busseto theatre. He did more as he succeeded in an almost heroic feat: getting himself in a photo with Bergonzi and Corelli; the very first time the old rivals were photographed together. For Corelli the career was over but Bergonzi valiantly struggled uphill by tackling a role which everybody had forgotten he had already sung in his youth in Catania, and which was now presented as a real première: Calaf, but the tapes prove that he was somewhat out of his depth. He returned to the Met for an extensive number of performances in autumn 76 and Spring 77 but then gradually his agenda became a little more empty, the places he sang in somewhat more exotic, the concerts more numerous. He was still not above studying new roles (Oronte in 79 in San Diego, Corrado in an almost amateur performance in New York in 1981). He very much appreciated his return to the Met in 1979 and 198O and got a heavy blow when he was not asked for the season 81-82, the season that marked the 25th anniversary of his Met-début (though he hadn't sung there for 25 consecutive seasons). His still numerous fans were badly surprised when they saw that no festivity was planned and that he was forgotten by general manager Bliss and music director Levine It was even too late to change the programme as everything was already planned. So they appealed to the only man who at that particular moment was mightier than Bliss .....Luciano Pavarotti, who gracefully conceded one of his own performances but demanded to sing an act plus an aria of Un Ballo in honour of his predecessor (Twenty years later Pavarotti would confess that he studied a lot of his parts with Bergonzi's recordings). The Met Management quickly complied as the presence of Pavarotti meant a sold out house. Bergonzi himself sang in the second act of Traviata (not a tenor's act) and the last of Tosca. It was all somewhat improvised but he was happy anyway though he was not asked for another performance. On the contrary, he was not asked to return for the next season and he poured his heart out during a press conference in New York. In Italy there was no interest  in him at all with the exception of Pippo Baudo( at that time married to Katia Ricciarelli), RAI's most popular quiz-master who invited him in for a few songs. When Bergonzi complained about this lack of interest he  forgot  that in July 1981 he had received the Caruso-prize (Masini and Del Monaco are other winners) in the villa Bellosguardo near Firenze where Caruso had lived for many years.
He was now 57 and with a 34-year career behind him. More and more he gave master classes and helped some young promising singers: Giuliano Cianella was the first of those who would almost make it; Salvatore Licitra being the last one. Still Bergonzi didn't give up, though he looked for a few less tiring occupations. Strangely enough the late seventies and early eighties were his most prolific recording years, often of small songs which he gave new life. CBS, Bongiovanni and later on the Munich firm of Orfeo published recital after recital. We wouldn't miss a single one of them but they nevertheless give a somewhat misleading picture. Younger collectors would buy these finely spun records and forget that apart from sheer beauty, young Bergonzi once had energy, raw power and secure top notes as well. An announcement was made that he and Raina Kabaivanska would record a complete Francesca da Rimini in 1987 but that project never came to fruition. In the middle of the eighties something strange happened.  For a few extra years he once more became in vogue in Chicago, the Met and Covent Garden. Those big houses wanted their older but especially their younger audiences to hear how a real divo of the golden age sounded now there were still a few good moments left. In 1988 he gave his last performance at the Met. Concerts became his trade though from time to time he would return to opera. This was not always well advised as he transposed heavily and sometimes not always successfully. I heard him in 1990 during a concert performance of Mefistofele in Vienna. Before the start it was announced that he had harmed his voice during his warming up and could only sing with limited means. Everybody could have his money back. Nobody moved. He sang better than I had heard him do for a long time, even the power coming back and as he eliminated all notes above the staff there were no sour flat notes.  In the early nineties he kept a light schedule but didn't completely give up, even when there were some heart problems and major bypass surgery. He concentrated more and more on teaching activities, organizing classes in his own Busseto (and filling the rooms of his hotel in the low season).

It was at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties that he slowly and gradually was deified. Two factors were responsible. When the three tenors definitely took over from the Corelli-Bergonzi-generation it was already 1975. Domingo and Pavarotti by that time were already stars but when Corelli left there were only Bergonzi and Kraus of the former generation and they didn't appeal to the broader masses. By 1978 it was clear that Domingo often had troubles with his deficient technique resulting in a bad top. By the eighties Carreras had lost the velvet of his voice while Pavarotti's voice more and more resembled a monochromatic steel thread. So gradually belcanto lovers remembered the elder generation. Moreover, no new exiting tenors appeared. Good voices yes, the best probably being Neil Shicoff but really nobody with the exceptional natural or musical talents of the recent past. And still there was that one witness of the golden age around with that unimpaired beautiful middle register. So he got the same treatment as some of his elders e.g. Pertile: first accepted, then taken for granted, than appreciated and at last admired.
Record companies still treasured Bergonzi in his last years. Japanese RCA brought out two 1990 recital CD's and he even returned to Decca with a complete recording of Adriana Lecouvreur when to their dismay the Bonynges discovered in the studio that Luciano Pavarotti didn't know the role of Maurizio. The reviews were positive, in fact too positive. He couldn’t have the whole opera transposed and by now it was clear that he had to strain for even an A-flat. The whole tessitura of any normal opera was too high for him.
For a moment it seemed that the 68-year old tenor had understood that his time had come. So from 1992 on he started to give a series of farewell concerts..  They were highly successful concerts, eagerly visited by old fans who marvelled at the freshness of the middle register, by young fans who said that the voice didn't sound old at all, by critics who mused on the fact that only above the staff there were difficulties but that there no was no trace of a wobble at all. Somewhat sadly, it soon transpired that the tenor himself couldn't bring himself to stop for good. These farewell concerts took on a somewhat faintly ridiculous Patti-air when he popped up again and again. Singing could now differ widely. There were days when only the most ardent sycophant would find something nice to say, other days a lot of the former beauty returned. A case in question was the farewell recital in Carnegie Hall in April 1996. The tenor was in surprisingly good voice and he brought an enormous vocal bouquet with him: he sang a lot of songs from his youth (composed for the movies of Ferruccio Tagliavini) which up to now were not in his repertory. It was clear that he amused himself very well. There was a coda to that concert. In the autumn of the same year he was invited to take part in Levine's commemoration of the conductor's début at the Met 25 years before. He sang 'Quando le sere', rather flat but as Manuela Hoelterhoff put it: “the kind of classy phrasing you wish could be decanted directly into the heads of a lot of tenors half his age." Thus almost exactly forty years after his début, Bergonzi took leave in a dignified way of the Met, wildly applauded by a public that recognized in  him the sole survivor of the new golden age of singing. Once again he reverted to teaching, judging in voice competitions and giving a few concerts. When I wrote an homage for a German opera-monthly I put in: "Bergonzi understood that he would wreck his career if he realized his oldest dream. Before his Met début he had promised himself that he would one day sing a complete Otello. It never happened and we must stick to some aria's and duo's."

So when early 1999 Queler and Co announced that Bergonzi would have his wish, I (and a lot of vocal friends) were flabbergasted, wondering why a 76-year old man would put himself through such an ordeal. A few crude jokes were made among vocal connoisseurs but nobody really wished for the disaster that took place in Carnegie Hall in May 2000. Stories abounded that the rehearsal was fine and indeed there is a lot of the old sound to be heard on the tape. Anyway more has been written on this crazy idea than on his hundreds of magnificent performances. Utterly voiceless he had to give up after the second act and the press attacked Queler for having provoked Bergonzi's humiliation. She replied that Bergonzi's management had asked her for this Otello and not vice-versa. There was hope that this rout would finally convince the tenor in doing what he does best: being the great old man of opera which we all love, but it was not to be. A lifelong addiction to applause,  a way of life that for fifty years existed in packing, travelling and performing has probably led to a deep unrest so that he cannot stay in his own place for a reasonable time. So off he went and on the first of July he was concertizing in the Vienna Staatsoper. Not everybody wants to hear a 76-year old tenor and there were a lot of empty seats and still more sour notes from his throat and from the critics. As I'm typing, I'm playing a live-CD of his concert of the 18th of September 2000 in Zürich. Sadly but true, it reminds me of the disastrous sounds that came from the throats of Callas-Di Stefano during their ill-advised 73-74 tour. The tenor blissfully unaware of the strangled and flat sounds sings his usual repertoire, making a travesty of 'La mia letizia' . He was widely celebrated in Italian opera circles when he turned 80 in 2004 and he didn’t need encouragement to sing ‘Non ti scordar di me’ and ‘Niun mi tema’ at the Parma Opera. In 2006 he provoked some acid comments in the States when he was invited at the Los Angeles Opera and spoke his mind, saying that Deborah Voigt was not much of a Tosca (he was right). On his return he was hospitalized for a short time and one wonders if he will ever be able to stay at home.

II. The actor, the singer, the performer, the man

Carlo Bergonzi is not much of an actor. That is a fixed sentence in almost any review. There are some reasons for. Bergonzi, even young Bergonzi, never looked the romantic hero. With his face,  his small height, his rather stout build he resembles a lot of Emiliani, people of agrarian or artisan stock. Therefore he could never compete with tenors like Corelli, Del Monaco, Kraus etc. who could make an impression by just standing without even moving. Remains the question: would we even accept agitated acting by tenors like Bergonzi or Björling as their outward appearance somewhat contradicts the story ? So maybe Bergonzi was right to restrain himself to dignified bearing. Bergonzi moved at two speeds on any scene: nr. 1:  the dignified walk in most scenes  nr.2: the agitated trot, that means walking at twice the speed of the dignified walk. The last speed was reserved for particular emotional moments in the opera: e.g. just before 'Di quella pira' or the moment he keeps  Ramfis in check so that Aida and Amonasro can escape or the flight with Leonora in Forza's first act. Bergonzi's most effective acting instrument was his left arm: stretched arm: attack; bown arm and  hand in fist on heart: eternal love etc. True, it didn't amount too much but it didn't disturb with the musical action while at the same time he often sang like an angel. A few producers tried to change his placid attitude but no one really succeeded. As Bergonzi himself told to Bruno Baudissone: “In Trovatore they had built a long stair and I was supposed to descend it before 'Di quella pira'. At the dress rehearsal the producer cried: 'Run Carlo, run'. I calmly replied 'No, I'm a singer, a tenor, not a track-runner”. During his long career, he nevertheless learned a few tricks of the trade and from the seventies on critics stress his comfortalbe attitude on the scene where he clearly stood at ease. He was at his best when he could impersonate rather dignified characters like Riccardo, the Duke or quite the contrary: Nemorino so near his own experiences.
This traditional view towards operatic acting also reveals much of Bergonzi's attitude towards modern production values. His views are simple: "Producers have their use if they respect the reasons of the music. A good producer should be a musician too”. Bergonzi is not known for obstructing wild ideas by innovative producers because he was seldom directly confronted with some of the madder moments of opera. Most of his career took place in places and at times when the heavily subsidized madness still was around the corner. The craziness of German origin only took Italian theatres over in the eighties when his operatic career was almost finished, while in the States idiocy always remained within limits as patrons and not the government had to put up the money. Nevertheless there were a few telling incidents. I remember reading his disparaging remarks in Italian newspapers after the Verona Aida in 1974. Aida was somewhat modernized and there was the irritating introduction of the Ethiopian prisoners guarded by Egyptians in Nazi-clothing; one of the dumbest clichés of opera producers. The set designer had done his best too. The big Sphynx at the top of the arena clearly had the head of Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State at that  moment. Bergonzi's best known row took place in 1962 when he made his début at Covent Garden. Sam Wanamaker, the producer and set designer, used projections of Goya paintings to illustrate the action. Looking at the photographs nowadays one wouldn't hesitate to call it a rather traditional production. But part of the public and Bergonzi detested it and there was a lot of booing. Wanamaker later on defended himself and got a stinging reply from the tenor in Opera Magazine, one of the very few times Bergonzi furiously reacted. After telling that he was late for rehearsal due to the recent death of his father and his subsequent illness, Bergonzi rather maliciously comments "if this innocuous gentleman is, therefore, very displeased with my success, I am similarly happy at his failure". But the crux off the letter (written in Italian) is in the insight it gives in Bergonzi's theatre credo which is 100% traditional:” His production was to my mind quite ruinous, his stupid movements not being in character with the score composed by our great Verdi. The scenic setting was similarly stupid because it was remote from realism; such "imagination" is not acceptable to the true opera-lover".

This letter is the exception to the rule. Bergonzi has a rather placid personality. He was never famous for throwing tantrums, for screaming, for wild exigencies. When one reads all kinds of memories, he is always mentioned for his vocal standards and almost never for wilder extra-musical demands.  When he sang a splendid Requiem  in Ghent in 1971, there was a nasty incident. Maazel, Bergonzi, Zylis-Gara, Ghiuselev had reunited in the evening for a rehearsal in the concert room of the local conservatory. They had just begun when the caretaker appeared and told them that he would close the building in a few minutes time. No complaints helped and this exemplary civil servant threw out the company. Next morning Maazel phoned his singers that they could rehearse once more in the same building. Some lesser gods would simply have refused but Bergonzi simply complied and gave a magnificent performance in the Sint-Baafscathedral in the evening. Birgit Nilsson is one of the few with a complaint. In her reminiscences she tells that when she was in Naples for Turandot in 1976, she was told that the première couldn't take place on the thirteenth of March  (original second performance on the 17th) The first night would have to be on the 15th because according to Nilsson the 17th was the tenor's unlucky number. She vehemently refused, saying that she needed at least three days between performances and anyway 15 was her unlucky number. She got her way. She never directly mentions Bergonzi by name, only giving his name a few lines further together with the other members of the cast and wrongfully adding that it was his first Turandot.  Bergonzi indeed has his superstitions and he abhors number 17. Therefore on the seventeenth of March Carlo Bergonzi was indisposed and replaced by Amedeo Zambon. The strange thing is that Bergonzi's nr. 17-fear seems to have been limited to Italy because at the Met or in Chicago he obviously was not afraid to sing on that date. Or he knew that only with superstitious Italian opera managers this ploy could work while he perfectly knew not to try this story on Bing.

Speaking of numbers, there is one that always pops up in interviews or stories about him: 67, the number of roles in his repertoire. Strange that no-one ever thought of counting them. Now taking into account some roles he only sang in the studio and counting a few masses as a role, I reach nr. 53 and not one more. And I don't believe that as a baritone he had the missing 14 roles in his repertory. 53 roles is a very respectable number though somewhat bleak compared with Domingo's always expanding number though Bergonzi clearly beats Franco Corelli (39 roles) One has however to admit that Corelli's list is somewhat more adventurous and exciting. After the passing of the galley years in which every young singer has to accept almost anything that comes his way, Bergonzi proves himself to be perfectly content with singing the most traditional of traditional repertoire. If one looks at his list of roles between that RAI-Fior di Maria in 57 and his San Diego Lombardi of 79, there is not a single performance on scene that doesn't belong to the bread-and-butter repertoire unless one thinks of Ernani and Werther as exotic fare. But as he could easily switch from lirico to lirico-spinto and even to dramatic tenor, he almost tackled all the popular roles of the Italian school. He has eighteen Verdi-roles under his belt (Corelli had 9), only Fanciulla is lacking in his Puccini-repertoire. And he has all the famous one-opera composers in his repertoire; Cav, Pag, Mefistofele, Adriana, Chénier, Gioconda. What is lacking of course is a slightly :more adventurous trampling into Mascagni and Giordano etc. territory. Never a Fedora, an Amico Fritz, a Favorita or Lucrezia Borgia. There is only the one exotic performance of the Dvorak Requiem in 1970 and I’m quite sure he had it mixed up with the Verdi Requiem. Being a good score reader, he tackled it without problem and anyway the words in Latin didn’t differ much. He didn’t once more venture in the French repertoire after his galley years. This was probably not his own fault as a good stylish tenor for Verdi always will have more trouble refusing offers than accepting them. There are a few tantalising remarks he made on his knowledge of Wagner-scores. Of course it is a pity that we don't have his Lohengrin but after Del Monaco's 1960-Lohengrin (still missing) the days for an Italian-language Lohengrin were gone. Moreover the sixties had a splendid Italianate Lohengrin with impeccable German-language knowledge in Sandor Konya..

Bergonzi always was a reliable, useful performer, too reliable sometimes. He was so popular with managements because he almost always delivered the goods even when he had better not done it. But for managers the show must go on and they will often prefer a bad performance by a singer, even if he is endangering his career by singing over a cold, than being confronted with a crisis and having desperately to look for a cover. At the Met where covering is always de rigeur this is no formidable problem but elsewhere management will almost always pressure a singer to perform against his or her common sense. Corelli cancelled when he only thought about a cold, or a world that was not wholly 'simpatico' towards him. When Bergonzi did the same, it usually meant that he couldn't utter a sound like in Chicago 61 where Poleri had to come to the rescue in Forza. But Bergonzi often, maybe too often went on when he should have known better. In 66 he had a bronchitis and nevertheless consented to sing Chénier in Zürich for a public that had paid highly increased prices. They got a careful tenor in the first act who made nothing of 'Un di all'azzuro'. Then it went worse and worse and the disillusioned public reacted angry while the tenor for the rest of the opera  pointed to his sore throat. The public's fury and his own shame stayed with Bergonzi, so that exactly 25 years later he excused himself for the 1966-indisposition during a new Zürich-concert. But there is a red line of such things happening during his whole career: the sickly Riccardo in Venice in January 71,  the hysterical booing of thousands of angry Italians during a Macerata-Trovatore in 77, the unbelievable sounds he croaked during a horrible Chénier  broadcasted by Radio France in 1980. And more to our distress, being hoarse he nevertheless accepted to sing a full programme of Gigli-songs as a video had to be taped.  Maybe a little of Corelli's oversensitivity wouldn’t have been amiss. There is one less nice story that still goes around. Robert Merrill tells in his second book of memories of the moment on tour that in his hotel room he heard screaming next door. The noise got so ugly he and Charles Kulmann wanted to intervene but at that moment everything became quiet. Later on he saw the wife of his neighbour, a tenor who was singing Manrico that evening, wearing sun spectacles though there was no sun at all. Later on , during a recording session in Firenze,  the lady told Merrill’s wife that in his nervousness before a performance her husband sometimes beat her. Merrill recorded only once in Firenze: Traviata, with Sutherland and….
Bergonzi’s  correspondence with the Met management betrays a man knowing well his own worth; someone not to be pushed around. Some of his admirers who know him personally say that he is one of the richest men of Italy, shrewdly investing his money in a lot of diversified projects and one of the big landowners of his region. He is rather conservative in outlook and attitude, a rather normal behaviour with a self-made man. At the end of 1965 Italy was rocked with a nice old-fashioned opera scandal. Giuseppe Valdengo and his two lesser known colleagues Giuseppe Zecchillo and Giampiero Malaspina accused two important theatrical theatres of embezzlement. Valdengo said that a lot of singers could only get work by these agencies if they contented themselves with a monthly salary while the agencies cashed in their fees. Moreover these agencies did the casting for important theatres like the Regio in Turin. In an open letter to the Minister of Culture some prominent singers came to the rescue of  the agencies. Signers were Gianni Raimondi, Giulietta Simionato, Giangiacomo Guelfi and ...Carlo Bergonzi, all prominent stars who surely were not paid per month but who didn't show much solidarity with younger struggling colleagues. Though Bergonzi always kept far from politics, it is clear that he has the same outlook as most sportspeople; a singer has to sing and is not interested in the regime of the country where he is performing. Bergonzi's many performances during the fifties and sixties in Lisbon and Spain where old-fashioned fascists held power and formed a big part of the audience makes it clear that Bergonzi's anti-fascist activities needn't be taken very seriously.

Last but not least, how was he rewarded? Very well. We already know that he came in at the Met at 700 $ but that after a few years he got top fees earning 4000 $ in the sixties. At the end of the decade he asked 5000 to 6000 $ a performance outside the Met. With these fees he would build a very fine hotel/restaurant (and not a very cheap one either) in Busseto in 1965. It stands a few hundred meters to the West of Verdi' statue in Busseto's Great Market and is run by Bergonzi's second son Marco. The tenor baptized it 'I Due Foscari', not because he had such fond memories of the opera but because he had noticed during his travels that the world abounded with 'bars Rigoletto, Otello, Traviata etc' while nobody had ever used the name of that less well-known opera. In Ghent 1971 he was paid 210.000 Belgian Franks; not bad for twenty minutes singing in the Verdi-Requiem and one third more than the second best paid performer, conductor Lorin Maazel.. Though during the seventies and eighties he couldn't quite keep up anymore with Domingo and Pavarotti, he nevertheless profited too from the inflation of their ever increasing fees and he raised his accordingly. In 199O Pavarotti got about 300.000 DM and Domingo 200.000 DM for a concert. (I put the prices in DM because the dollar often fluctuated rather wildly in those years); Bergonzi was far more modest but nevertheless got away with 50.000 DM for one of his concerts, not a bad price for a 66year old tenor.

click here for part three

Jan Neckers, Opera Nostalgia