Carlo Bergonzi: The Sublime Voice
Excerpts from operas by  Puccini (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Manon Lescaut), Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci), Verdi (Don Carlo, Rigoletto, Otello, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, La traviata and Il trovatore),  Ponchielli (La Gioconda), and Cilea (Adriana Lecouvreur).
Carlo Bergonzi, tenor (with Renata Tebaldi, Gianna d’Angelo, Renata Scotto, Sylvia Stahlman, and Joan Sutherland, sopranos; Fiorenza Cossotto, Giulietta Simionato, and Dora Carral, mezzo-sopranos; Piero de Palma, tenor, Ettore Bastianini, Enzo Sordello, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritones; Tugomir Franc, Fernando Corena, and Libero Arbace, basses). Various orchestras, choruses, and cond.

Decca  467 023 (M) (ADD) TT: 2:33:55
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This two-disc tribute to Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi is comprised primarily of selections from several complete opera recordings he made for the London label (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, Don Carlo, Un ballo in maschera, Aida, La Gioconda and La traviata) and for Deutsche Gramophon (Cavalleria rusticana, I Pagliacci, Rigoletto and Il trovatore) in the 1950s and '60s. In addition there are four excerpts from a 1958 Decca solo recital (arias from Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Adriana Lecouvreur), as well as a single representation (Otello's third-act monologue) of the tenor's mid-'70s three-disc survey of Verdi arias for Philips.

For those who question whether the title "The Sublime Voice”"might constitute a bit of hyperbole, I recommend the set's opening track, "Che gelida manina." Taken from the 1959 London recording of La Bohème, it is in my opinion, one of the finest recordings of this great aria. Bergonzi opens in a light, conversational tone, captures the intimate moment that is being shared by Rodolfo and Mimi.  At the words ""Chi son, e che faccio,"  Bergonzi executes an exquisite diminuendo on the B-flat, continuing to the end of the phrase without taking an additional breath. It is a moment of extraordinary magic, the kind that can only be produced by a great artist in top form.

As the aria continues, Bergonzi's precise diction and lively delivery portray Rodolfo's infectious enthusiasm for his life as a poet. Then, in the aria's passionate final section, beginning with the words "Talor dal mio forziere," Bergonzi opens the vocal floodgates, proceeding to a glorious high C. At the aria's denouement, Bergonzi returns to the hushed mood with which the aria began, thus giving the music a fulfilling sense of symmetry and completion. As with many Bergonzi performances, this "Che gelida manina" is an absolute gem, a masterclass in the art of tenor singing.

Indeed, throughout his career, Bergonzi's work has always been notable for its unique synthesis of imagination, sensitivity, and passion. In addition Bergonzi was a supreme technician, an artist who possessed the ability to execute his fascinating and often unique concepts. It is true that from the late '70s onward, his upper register became more problematic. But that is not of concern here, as all of the excerpts on this set are from the tenor's prime years.

Many of Bergonzi's greatest roles are well represented on this set. Not surprisingly,his favorite composer, Verdi, is prominent.  Riccardo (here represented by the first of two commercial recordings of Un ballo in maschera) ideally captures the heroic, romantic, and humorous qualities of one of Verdi's most fascinating tenor characters. Likewise, Bergonzi is one of the finest in delineating the warrior and lover dichotomies of Radamès (Aida) and Manrico (Il trovatore). With regard to the latter, how many tenors other than Bergonzi have been able to execute fine trills in the aria ""Ah! s“, ben mio," and then produce two ringing high Cs in "Di quella pira"?

Other highlights include one of the most affecting renditions of "E lucevan le stelle" and a "Cielo e mar!" that manages to be both suave and heroic. But in truth, each and every excerpt makes for compelling listening. In the bargain, this set affords the pleasure of hearing Bergonzi interact with such immortal colleagues as Renata Tebaldi (La Bohème, Madama Butterfly and Aida), Fiorenza Cossotto (Cavalleria rusticana and Rigoletto), Renata Scotto (Rigoletto), Birgit Nilsson (Un ballo in maschera), Joan Sutherland (La traviata), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Don Carlo and Rigoletto).

Those who own the recordings that are excerpted here will probably not find this release of great additional value. On the other hand, this set provides a superb introduction to one of the postwar era's greatest tenors, an artist who truly deserves the adjective "sublime."

K.M. (June 2001)