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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
The Great Carlo Bergonzi
Various venues, orchestras, conductors and accompanying singers
rec. 1959-1977
RCA RED SEAL 88857 018082 [67.48 + 57.53]

I do not know if this release was in the planning or a rush job when the news came through of the great tenor’s death on 25 July 2014. Nevertheless it carries an In Memoriam sticker on the case with the statement "The ultimate highlights from his RCA and Columbia recordings". Without doubt the death of Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014) marked the passing of arguably the finest Italian tenor of the second half of the twentieth century. Fortunately for us his recorded legacy is extensive. He never was a contracted artist for one label, as so many were in the period from 1950 to 1980.

It seems strange to label him as such a fine tenor when his stage debut was as a baritone. For a period during World War 2 he was a German prisoner of war and interned after which he studied first at the Parma Conservatory and then at the Boito Conservatory before making his stage debut as Mozart’s Figaro. Other baritone parts followed such as Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata, Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohéme and standing in for Tito Gobbi, no less, as Rigoletto. Perhaps it was the last of those roles that convinced him that his future lay as a tenor. Recognising his ease with the relatively high tessitura of the former roles and the lack of heft and depth of tone demanded by the latter, he withdrew from the stage. He retrained his voice himself, emerging as a tenor in Andrea Chenier in 1951. In that same year, the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death, he also appeared in a number of the composer’s early works that made it onto record on the Italian Cetra label. Later in the 1960s I heard examples of those recordings when Rare Records of Manchester hit problems with their franchise of the Cetra label and stock became available at somewhat less than the normal LP price.

Having made his La Scala debut in 1953, interest in his strong lyric voice with spinto potential quickly took him to London and the USA singing roles including Alvaro in La Forza del Destino and Radames in Aida at the Met in 1956, the former being his Covent Garden debut in 1962. His recorded repertoire blossomed during the 1960s as the various labels sought to provide stereo recordings of the mainstream operatic repertoire. RCA, a major player at the time, started making studio recordings of successful opera productions largely with the casts seen at the Met. One of the earliest was that of Macbeth in 1959 with Leonard Warren, who was to die tragically on the stage of the Met, in the title role. Bergonzi was there as Macduff (tr.9) and his strong characterful lyric voice is clearly evident. RCA, quickly recognising the costs of studio recordings at home in America quickly transferred to Rome. As the Rome Opera House forces were contracted elsewhere they invented the name RCA Opera Orchestra and Chorus for essentially the same forces. Many of the opera recordings present in this collection originated from the above arrangement.

The obvious advantage of the recordings was the use of star singers well versed in their roles. The downside is the use of conductors such Leinsdorf and Prêtre who were less than sympathetic to the Verdi idiom than Giulini, and later Gardelli, who were recording elsewhere. Also, until RCA’s brief liaison with Decca, the sonic quality of the recordings was not of the very best. The better side of this arrangement was the presence of an idiomatic Italian chorus, always essential in Verdi, and casts that matched Bergonzi’s elegance and sense of Italianate style. Names such as Leontyne Price and Montserrat Caballé feature alongside Renata Scotto, Anna Moffo, Shirley Verrett and the ever-reliable Robert Merrill.

From the days of LP and later CD I have owned, and still own in the case of CD, nearly all of the complete versions from which the operatic extracts on CD 1 are taken. My favourites for exemplifying the qualities of Bergonzi’s singing, vocal elegance, characterisation and phrasing, along with the burnished golden tone and perfect legato, are heard to perfection in the extracts from the more lyric roles such as Alfredo in La Traviata, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera and Edgardo from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. As I have noted above, and unusual in his voice type, it was Bergonzi’s ability to bring those same skills to the heavier demands of Alvaro in La Forza del Destino and Radames in Aida, which he recorded for EMI and Decca respectively. These mark him out as a paragon of tenors of his generation. He only attempted Otello in a concert performance after he retired from the stage. Although he got through rehearsals he cracked in the performance itself. On record he notably appeared in Erik Smith’s early Verdi recordings for Philips of Attila and I Masnadieri in 1972 and 1974 respectively. These led to his recording of thirty-one Verdi arias, all conducted by Nello Santi except the two early Verdi pieces which were under Lamberto Gardelli. The thirty-one include Dio! mi potevi scagliar and Niun mi tema from Otello along with Fenton’s lyric Dal labbro il canto from Falstaff; the later three wholly different in vocal demand yet met superbly (Philips 432 486-2 - 3 CDs). A decade later he and Joan Sutherland sang Lucia and Edgardo from Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden. According to contemporary accounts in Opera Magazine and elsewhere they sang everybody off the stage, this confirmed by the not wholly independent conductor of the performances, Richard Bonynge, in a conversation with me in 2014 when discussing Bergonzi and contemporary tenors.

On stage Bergonzi was not one of nature's natural actors. He tended to be rather static, often caressing the note with one hand as he sang. An apocryphal story went the rounds: the famous Italian director Zeffirelli pleading with him to "usa da other hand", to which Bergonzi was said to have replied "I keepa dat for Tosca". I was lucky enough to hear him live as Riccardo, a role ideally suited to him. I did not worry about his non-acting. I just closed my eyes and gloried in his wonderful golden tone, elegant phrasing and nuanced way with Verdi’s words to build the perfect picture in my mind.

The second disc of this double set takes in Bergonzi singing Italian songs with John Wustman accompanying. Recorded in Carnegie Hall in April 1977 it finds the singer in top form. Listening to his phrasing and legato brought back memories of listening to Schipa and Gigli on Red Label 78s. He could stand comparison with those masters, the former of whom would never have dared assay the spinto roles that Bergonzi undertook with so much distinction. If restricted to utmost brevity I would choose one word to accompany the vocal virtues I indicate above, it would be "taste". Bergonzi was the antithesis of the "can belto" Italian tenors of the period.

In view of my eulogistic comments as to Bergonzi’s singing, you may ask why no imprimatur of Recording of the Month? The fact is RCA have spoiled the ship for a pennyworth of thought. Why not set the extracts from each opera in sequence rather than spread them throughout CD1. They could have achieved cohesion either in order of composition or recording date but above all keeping the extracts from each opera together. To have this sublime singing of Alfredo scattered between tracks 4, 5, 10, 13 and 18 is a travesty of taste. Likewise the sequencing that has his first RCA recording, from Macbeth at tr.9, sandwiched between Riccardo’s act 1 canzone Di’ tu se fedele from Ballo in Maschera recorded in 1966 (tr.6) and the Lucia di Lammermoor extracts of 1965 (trs.7-8) followed by Lunge da lei from the La Traviata recorded in 1967 (tr.9). Verdian style and the singer’s maturity could have been issues better addressed in the sequencing of the extracts. The Decca two CD issue titled The Sublime Voice of Carlo Bergonzi covers a generous selection of the tenor’s opera recordings for the company. It spans his first duo recordings of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, published in 1958-59, to that of La Gioconda of 1967. It also takes in his Ballo under Solti, Traviata with Sutherland under Pritchard and Rigoletto and Don Carlo, among others. This is a veritable feast of well recorded extracts, those from each opera set together and with published dates and other singers readily identified. Bergonzi also recorded for EMI, notably as Cavaradossi to Callas’ Tosca in her 1964 stereo recording and, more importantly, as Alvaro in the unsurpassed 1969 recording of La Forza del Destino under Gardelli (EMI. 7 64646 2. 3 CDs). He also recorded a selection of Neapolitan Songs in Madrid in 1972 that appeared on the Ensayo label (ENY-CD-3416).

The accompanying leaflet has an essay, in English, titled The Great Carlo Bergonzi along with a track-list and haphazard presentation of recording dates, conductors and other singers involved.

Robert J Farr
CD 1
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller
Scene ed aria: Oh! Fede negar potessi ... Quando le sere al placido [5.38]
Mercè, diletti amici: Come rugiada al cespite [4.22]
Dell' esiglio nel dolore[3.26]
La Traviata
Libiamo ne' lieti calici [3.03]
Un dì felice eterea [3.18]
Lunge da lei; De' miei bollenti spiriti [4.07]
Parigi, o cara [4.24]
Oh, mio rimorso! [2.59]
Un ballo in Maschera
Di' tu se fedele [3.10]
E scherzo, od è follia [3.29]
Ma se m'è forza perderti [2.48]
La rivedra nel' estai [2.10]
O figli; Ah, la paterna mano [3.53]
Messa da Requiem
Dies irae, Ingemisco [3.50]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor
Tombe degli avi miei [3.59]
Fra poco a me ricovero [3.22]
Sulla tomba che rinserra [3.04]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Edgar (conclusion), Bella signora [5.44]

CD 2
1. Vaga luna che inargenti (Bellini) [3.37]
2. Stornello (Verdi) [1.51]
3. Se…Luigi Denza (Mancini) [4.41]
4. Me voglio fa'na casa (Donizetti) [2.19]
5. O del mio amato ben (Donaudy) [3.45]
6. Vaghissima sembianza (Donaudy) [2.45]
7. O primavera! (Bonetti) [2.31]
8. Occhi di fata (Denza) [3.42]
9. La promessa from Les soirées musicales (Rossini) [3.42]
10. Serenata (Mascagni) [3.26]
11. Tormento! (Tosti) [4.33]
12. L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra (Tosti) [2.45]
13. Ideale (Tosti) [3.37]
14. Lolita (Peccia) [2.38]
15. Non ti scordar di me (De Curtis) [3.13]
16. La danza from Les soirées musicales (Rossini) [3.04]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
17. Orgia, chimera dall'occhio vitreo [5.46]