Carlo Bergonzi was one of the leading Italian tenors of the Golden era of the 20th century.
Known for his elegant phrasing, Bergonzi built up his career dominating in the repertoire of one particular composer (more on that later).
Born on July 13, 1924, Bergonzi’s career actually started off as a baritone before he eventually realized that he was a tenor. Before that, however, he was involved in Anti-Nazi activities that made him a German prisoner. He spent two years in a concentration camp and when he was freed by the Russians, he had to walk 106 km to find another American camp, weighing just 80 pounds (36 kg).
He eventually resumed his career as a baritone, singing such roles as Figaro in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Silvio in “Pagliacci,” Sharpless in “Madam Butterfly,” Giorgio Germont in “La Traviata,” and the leading role in “Rigoletto.”
In 1951, he retrained his voice and made his debut as a tenor in the title role of “Andrea Chénier.” In 1953, he made his debut at La Scala, which was promptly followed by a debut in London, and the Metropolitan Opera, where he would sing for 30 years.
He performed at the top of his game through the 1970s but struggled somewhat vocally in the 1980s, choosing to concentrate on recitals instead of full-blown productions. He retired from the stage in 1996. He did make a brief return in 2000 to sing “Otello” in concert, though he never made it past the first two acts, his legendary career ending on a sour note.
He died at 90 on July 25, 2014, leaving behind an ample recorded legacy.
Bergonzi sang a wide range of repertoire, ranging from the bel canto operas of Donizetti to the verismo works of Puccini, but he will forever be linked to the works of Verdi.
Not only was he a leading exponent of Verdi’s major works, but he also aided in the rediscovery of some lesser-known operas, such as “Giovanna d’Arco” and “I due Foscari.”
He is often cited as a textbook example of great Verdi singing, his voice possessing both the heft for some of the heavier passages, but the lightness for some of the refined moments in the composer’s oeuvre. Few tenors of the era or since have been able to claim the versatility that Bergonzi had for this repertoire and his lengthy career bears out the fact that he was perfect for it.
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Watch and Listen
Here is a look at his interpretation of 31 Verdi arias.
Here is one of his signature Verdi roles – Manrico in “Il Trovatore.”