Carlo Bergonzi: Il Trionfo di Zurigo
In recent months, the name of Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi has been in the news—and not all for the better. In May 2000 at Carnegie Hall Mr. Bergonzi, two months shy of his 76th birthday, attempted his first performance of the title role in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. The event was hardly the triumph that Mr. Bergonzi’s supporters so fervently anticipated. After struggling through the first two acts, the tenor withdrew, leaving the remainder of the opera to a cover.
The reasons for this unfortunate outcome will be debated for some time. Many, this writer included, questioned the wisdom of what seemed like a quixotic undertaking. While no one questions Bergonzi’s status as one of the great Verdi singers of the postwar era, it is a fact that the tenor eschewed a live performance of Verdi’s Moor of Venice during his prime. Why would anyone, Bergonzi included, be inclined to believe that this extraordinarily demanding role would suddenly become an appropriate vehicle for a singer in the middle of his eighth decade?
Perhaps some explanation may be found in a superb new release on the Relief label documenting a September 30, 1991 recital at the Zurich Opera House. The set is entitled The Triumph of Zurich. It is a title that requires no hyperbole whatsoever. In listening to this marvelous 1991 recital, even the most skeptical of critics might be tempted to believe that an Otello was still within the grasp of Bergonzi, even at this late stage of his career.
Bergonzi, 67 at the time of the Zurich recital, is in sterling form. The middle of the voice retains virtually all of the warmth and color of its prime years. It is also obvious from this recording (apparently made from a prime location in the audience) that the voice rings forth with impressive power. While it is true that the top notes do not have the freedom of the prime years, they still possess security and authority. However, of course, the strength of Carlo Bergonzi’s career was never really based upon ringing high notes. This is a man who has always been recognized as a complete singer—a paragon of technique, style, and immediacy of communication. Each and every selection on this disc provides a lesson in the application of breath control, phrasing, diction, and a marvelous range of vocal colors. This is singing that would be admirable coming from a tenor in his prime. For a tenor of 67 years, the results are nothing short of a miracle.
The program offers a typical Bergonzi mixture of songs and arias. Verdi, of course, plays a prominent role. The renditions of arias from Ernani, Luisa Miller, and I Lombardi radiate Bergonzi’s unique fusion of fire and grace. There is also a broadly phrased and lovingly shaped “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d'amore.
For my money, Carlo Bergonzi has long been most seductive tenor exponent of Italian song. In this recital, Bergonzi offers a sense of compelling narrative in each and every gem by Bellini, Gastaldon, Tosti, de Curtis, et al. Pianist Vincenzo Scalera provides alert, sympathetic accompaniment. It is clear on this evening (as in the case of countless evenings in this man’s great career), Bergonzi had the audience eating out of his hand. I’m still not convinced that Otello was a proper choice for this superb artist. But I do know that I will be returning to this glorious recital as often as possible. The recorded sound is excellent.
K.M. (Dec. 2000)