Just a week or two ago, at a performance of La Traviata, I was telling my colleague Mark Valencia how Alfredo was long ago spoiled for me, because no tenor can come close to Carlo Bergonzi in the role. Just listen to the 1962 recording he made with Joan Sutherland, and John Pritchard conducting, for the laser-like intensity, wonderful control and sheer beauty of Bergonzi's voice. "Un di felice" from that recording would be high on my list of desert island choices.
Now, just two weeks after his 90th birthday, Carlo Bergonzi has died, the last great tenor of a golden age.
Alfredo isn't the only role in which he stood head and shoulders above the competition, of his or later generations. I'd add Alvaro in La forza del destino, Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera, Rodolfo in Luisa Miller and even to some extent Don Carlo to that list. For me, he's peerless in all these roles; others can sing them but Bergonzi owned them.
He championed many of the lesser-known Verdi operas including I due Foscari (soon to be seen at Covent Garden and the name of the hotel Bergonzi owned in Busseto), I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Giovanna d'Arco, Attila and Ernani, making each sound as though it were one of the composer's major works. And, while his name will always be most readily associated with Verdi, he excelled in the great Puccini roles (his Rodolfo and Pinkerton are real heartbreakers), the verismo classics such as Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana, some bel canto operas (Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor) and, at the limits of his repertoire, Werther and even Steva in Jenufa.
Bergonzi was no actor and he'd be very out of place in a modern production. As with the slightly older Jussi Bjoerling, he exemplified the stand and deliver singer who was easily forgiven for the unequalled sound he made. This wasn't true of all of his contemporaries. Mario del Monaco, when he wasn't yelling his head off, could be a very subtle and convincing actor and Franco Corelli looked as good as he sounded.
To see Bergonzi at his physically most unconvincing, watch the 1966 video of Aida from the Verona arena, with its cardboard sets and ridiculous costumes, but revel in the magnificent sound of Bergonzi, Leyla Gencer and Fiorenza Cossotto. Even as someone who loves "directors' opera" and the modern emphasis on coherent drama in the opera house, I can't deny this is the art form at its very best.
In 2000, at the age of nearly 76, Bergonzi undertook a concert performance of Otello, a role he had never sung in full before. With an audience of the good and great at NYC's Carnegie Hall, Bergonzi had to withdraw halfway through the performance after clearly struggling and critics were quick to condemn him for biting off more than he could chew at that age. I have a recording of the dress rehearsal made the day before, in which the sound quality is appalling and the tenor is clearly past his best, but it is proof that Bergonzi could sing the role and his claims of external circumstances (he blamed the hall's heating system) are confirmed. Had a good commercial recording been made of that rehearsal it would have been a memorable conclusion to a great career.
For many years I've had a signed photograph of Carlo Bergonzi in pride of place on my mantelpiece, the only opera memorabilia I own. It is a treasured memento of one of the truly great artists of the twentieth century and all the more valued now he's gone.