Aida, Luisa Miller, La forza del destino, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, L’Africaine, Andrea Chénier, Adriana Lecouvreur, Tosca, Manon Lescaut
Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome
Gianadrea Gavazzeni, conductor
Decca, 1957 (2004)
Operatic Recital is one of the first albums recorded by tenor Carlo Bergonzi, but it reveals immediately a complete singer in possession of a prodigious technique and an enviable, acute and deep comprehension of the roles he performs. This is even more stunning when you consider that Bergonzi’s debut took place only few years before and that at that time he sang as a baritone (he was Figaro in Le nozze di Figaro staged in Lecce in 1948) and that he discover to be a tenor only after three more years of study, making his “second” debut as the title role in Andrea Chénier.
Study is, after all, one of the features that are more commonly mention when talking about Bergonzi and the secret that led him to become one of the most important Verdi tenors of the 20th century. It is widely recognized that, despite his voice was not one of the bests for weight and range, Bergonzi unceasingly smoothed his instrument until he distinguished himself for refined phrasing, soft legatos and the cautious stressing of accents that won him the nickname of “the Verdi tenor” (as one of his later recording is proudly entitled). The only regret is that his voice never reached a remarkable luminosity of timbre, but this lack, probably heritage of his baritonal beginnings, is compensated by the energy of the emission and the ability of the singer to adapt the vocal timbre to the characters he sings, taking revenge from what seemed a limitation.
These features are all present in Operatic Recital, a recording dated to 1957 and conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Apart from the tenor’s qualities, it is worth remembering that Gavazzeni’s conduction is so inspired and magisterial that, as in many other “solo” recordings, in this one too there are actually two great artists at work. The programme is a little too short, as it happens with old recordings, but other tracks were added when Decca released again this album as part of the set 55 Great Vocal Recitals. The “new” tracks are actually excerpts from Bergonzi’s recording of entire operas. I added this information only for completeness and, as I hope to review at least some of those complete recordings sooner or later, the present post will focus only on the original programme of Operatic Recital.
Bergonzi is a Verdi tenor, it was said, and it is therefore not by chance that Operatic Recital opens with a wonderful Celeste Aida followed by four arias from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, La forza del destino, Il Trovatore and Un ballo in maschera.
If there is a piece in which the listener may regret that Bergonzi’s voice is not more sonorous, Celeste Aida is definitely this one, but, when he or she has put aside the discontent, Bergonzi’s skill will reveals itself fully. The first lines of the recitative are enough for him to clarify Radames’s psychology once and for all, as he begins «Se quel guerrier io fossi» with martial enthusiasm only to express a sweeter hope in «e a te, mia dolce Aida» and then to return to an heroic mood in «tornar di lauri cinto». The hero and the lover will re-appear also in the aria in their right places. Celeste Aida is notable also for Gavazzeni’s fine conduction and the fine sound of the strings.
The next aria, Quando le sere al placido from Luisa Miller is moving for the expression of romantic feelings tinged with the regret of «Mi tradia», casting a shadow over sweeter remembrances. Poetry finds room in Quando le sere al placido thanks to the tenor’s voice and Gavazzeni’s inspired conduction, but it is immediately dissipated by the incisive remark La vita è inferno agli infelici from La forza del destino, in which Bergonzi spreads his dramatic singing with consciousness, conferring to the scene a peculiar concreteness.
Ah sì, ben mio from Il Trovatore is a wise choice as Bergonzi’s timbre is not one of the most suitable for Manrico, but this aria has a lyrical character that makes you forget this irremediable flaw. Forse la soglia attinse from Un ballo in maschera shows again the tenor’s strength and tenderness at their best.
O paradiso is the only aria from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s L’Africana that Bergonzi sings with rapture and emotion. Next comes Come un bel dì di maggio from Bergonzi’s debut (as a tenor) opera, Andrea Chénier, and its ill-omens are naturally accentuated the burnished timbre of Bergonzi’s voice. La dolce effige from Adriana Lecouvreur is another moment of tender expression and distension that does not last long as it is immediately dissipated by Ho l’anima stanca (from the same opera).
Three pieces from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (Recondita armonia and E lucevan le stelle) and Manon Lescaut (Donna non vidi mai) end the album. It was a right choice to include Cavaradossi’s solo moments from the first and the last act as this makes possible to compare Bergonzi’s art for art’s sake Recondita armonia to the sorrowful E lucevan le stele, where he successfully portrays the hopeless condemned prisoner. Donna non vidi mai is for its part a relaxed ending, where Bergonzi finds again his romantic, rapturous vein.
Operatic Recital is definitely a fine recording and a wonderful proof of Carlo Bergonzi’s inimitable style and technique.