Now here's a real tenor. I kiss Decca's feet for having the good taste to honor Carlo Bergonzi, a singer with more class in his little finger than most tenors have in their whole body. This compilation contains nothing new, but I fervently hope that it will entertain and instruct a whole new generation of the operatically inclined that the "The Three Tenors" are far from the whole story.
Bergonzi was born in Italy in 1924, debuted as a baritone in 1948, and then debuted as a tenor in 1951. He quickly shot up the ladder of fame, making his La Scala debut in 1953. Chicago (1955), the Metropolitan Opera (1956), and Covent Garden (1962) followed in turn. To my ears, his specialty was Verdi, whose music he sang with a lyric ardor unalloyed with hyperemotional distortions, yet he was no less fine in Puccini and in other verismo roles. In these, he turned the histrionics up a notch, but he remained a model of taste and intelligence. The voice was immediately recognizable, and of a manly, golden timbre, and his notes were exciting. (Try the end of "Di quella pira" on this CD for proof.) Another gift was his ability to sing in long phrases, and to color his voice to add meaning without exaggeration. For many, he was the "tenor's tenor."
His legacy on records is outstanding. He recorded many of the early works of Verdi for Philips, and his set of tenor arias from every Verdi opera was destined to be a classic from the moment of its release. He also recorded an excellent La forza del destino for EMI Classics, and several complete operas – no less fine – for RCA Victor and CBs Masterworks. Most of his records, however, were released on Decca/London and Deutsche Grammophon. Now that Universal Classics incorporates these two labels, plus Philips, compiling this collection became as natural as a glass of champagne after coming home from the opera.
Most of these selections come from Bergonzi's complete recordings. From London/Decca, there are six excerpts from Un ballo in maschera (a great set, currently not represented in complete form on CD), five from La Bohème and La traviata, four from Madama Butterfly, two from Aïda, and one from Don Carlos and La Gioconda. From Deutsche Grammophon, there are six excerpts from Rigoletto, three from Il trovatore, and one each from Cav and Pag. The remaining excerpts come from recital recordings conducted by Nello Santi and Gianandrea Gavazzeni. In the excerpts from complete sets, Bergonzi's imposing partners include Renata Tebaldi, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
I like compiler Bill Holland's idea of offering multiple excerpts from operas; this gives us a better idea of what Bergonzi was like in these roles. Unfortunately, this means that some tracks must fade out suddenly. At times I was left hanging. There are no texts and translations. This is a shame, because inexperienced listeners stand to gain more from this collection than older collectors, who already know what this music is about. The sound varies from recording to recording, of course, but it never is less than good.
OK, no lies: Bergonzi is an essential, and this two-CD set is like a box of luxury-class chocolates. By no means pass it by, particularly if you don't know this singer.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle