When he was around six years old, Carlo Bergonzi went to see Il trovatore, his first Verdi opera. This was his first encounter with a composer who would lie at the very heart of his career as an operatic tenor – a singer of exceptional grace and ease, Bergonzi was, in many people’s opinion, simply peerless as a performer of many of Verdi’s best known roles.
Bergonzi was born Vidalenzo, northern Italy, and initially trained to be a cheesemaker like his father. When, after World War II, he did begin his singing career, it was as a baritone – only after having made his debut, as Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 1948, did he decide to make the move up to the tenor ranks.
It was a good decision, and the rest is operatic history. By 1951 Bergonzi had made his first appearance in a tenor role, in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier in Bari, and in 1953 he was invited to sing at La Scala in Milan for the first time. Debuts at the New York Met and London’s Covent Garden followed in 1956 and 1962 respectively.
While it was particularly in Verdi roles – not least Radames in Aida, Afredo in La traviata and the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto – that Bergonzi’s vocal agility and expression set him apart from others, he was equally at home in the likes of Puccini and Donizetti.
His ability to characterise a part so brilliantly with his voice was something of a blessing, since his acting skills were nothing to write home about, as he himself acknowledged. ‘I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino,’ he once remarked, ‘but I have tried to learn to act through the voice.’
Bergonzi’s career was as long as it was distinguished, and he made his final appearance at the age of 76 in a concert performance of Verdi’s Otello in New York. As well as a many excellent recordings, he also leaves behind the town of Busseto’s I due Foscari Hotel, which he opened in the 1960s and is still going strong.
Photo: Louis Melancon