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The 1950s through the early 1970s were an odd age when it came to Verdi singing. On one hand there were singers who super-imposed their own idiosyncrasies on the music almost to the extent of rewriting it, on the other, there was Bergonzi, who for many, epitomized Verdian grace and style, not only for his generation, but for the entire 20th century. Not only was Bergonzi an impeccable stylist, he was a superb vocalist, who like Alfredo Kraus, could still sing with aplomb and musicianship in his 70s. While Bergonzi's repeated "farewell concerts," which started in 1994 and continued from then, were the stuff that operatic jokes are made of, the musicianship and style that he displayed at those concerts and recital demonstrated that Bergonzi's singing, which excelled in bel canto, verismo, and song as well, is the stuff that operatic legends are made of, despite never having huge or absolutely secure high notes.
While there were no musicians in his immediate family, his parents were great opera lovers, and took him to see Il Trovatore when he was just six, and Bergonzi responded enthusiastically—the next morning, his parents found him in the kitchen, singing "Di quella pira" as best he could, and staging the scene with kitchen implements in place of the more standard swords. As he grew older, he performed under slightly more formal auspices, in church choirs and in child roles in the Busseto opera. When he was fourteen, he decided to become a professional singer, and with his opera-loving father's encouragement, auditioned for Edmondo Grandini, who was performing at Busetto.
Grandini evaluated his voice, decided that he was actually a baritone (many tenors, among them Vinay and Domingo, were also considered baritones at the beginning of their careers) and offered him lessons. Bergonzi moved to Brescia to study there with him, though his studies were interrupted by the war, and later by his imprisonment in a German prisoner-of-war camp for anti-Nazi activities. When the war ended and he was released, he returned to Italy and began studies at the Boito Conservatory in Parma.
At the conservatory, he was still considered a baritone, he studied with Ettore Campogalliani, and after graduation, made his professional debut as Schaunard in La Boheme in 1947, his debut in a lead as Rossini's Figaro in 1948 at Lecce, and continued to sing leading baritone roles there, even at one point replacing Tito Gobbi as Rigoletto. However, he himself remained convinced that he was a tenor, and the more he observed his own voice, the more certain he became. Finally, having used what he had learned at the conservatory and recordings of other tenors, particularly Caruso, Schipa, Gigli, and Pertile, and what he remembered from singing on stage with Schipa and Gigli, to prepare himself for a career as a tenor, he made his debut as a tenor in Bari as Andrea Chenier in 1951, and soon sang two major Verdi tenor roles, Riccardo (Un Ballo in Maschera) and Alvaro in La Forza del Destino. Both his secure vocal technique and his secure lower range enabled him to sing Chenier and Alvaro successfully, spinto roles that have caused vocal problems for tenors who took them on too early. To keep his voice flexible, he also sang lighter roles, such as Nemorino and even Nero in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. In 1953 he made his La Scala debut creating the role of Masaniello in Napoli's opera and his London debut as Alvaro, his American debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, and his Met debut the following year. His Covent Garden debut, again as Alvaro, was not until 1962. He became a regular performer at nearly all of the great opera houses, renowned not only for his magnificent singing, but for consistency. He kept his versatility throughout his career, alternating lyric and spinto roles, easily switching from roles such as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor to spinto roles such as Radames and even some verismo roles. He was never a great stage actor, nor did he have the matinee idol good looks of some of his contemporaries, but was an excellent vocal actor, singing each role with the vocal colors he felt it demanded, rather than a "one voice fits all" approach. He never sang Verdi's Otello, declaring that his voice did not have and could not create the requisite coloration. During the 1980s he began to focus more on recitals and concert performances, and also became a well-known teacher, concentrating on technique. In 1988, still in fine voice, admittedly not as fresh as it had been, he recorded Maurizio in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, with Joan Sutherland. He created a voice school in Busseto, Verdi's birthplace and not far from his own home town, and was also instrumental in the "Concorso internazionale di voci verdiane," a competition for aspiring Verdi singers.
He recorded all of his major Verdi roles, and nearly every recording is outstanding. However, he often refers to his 1976 recording on Philips of 31 major arias from every Verdi opera, which won the Deutscher Schalplattenpries, Premio della critica discographica italiana, and the Stereo Review Record of the Year awards, as the recording he is proudest of. His complete recording of Pagliacci on DG for von Karajan (available as a single opera and as a Cav/Pag pairing) is equally a masterpiece, showing him thoroughly at home in the verismo style. On Sony (SMK 60785), he made an exemplary recording of Italian songs, again sung with impeccable style.
13. Juli 1924 in Vidalenzo, Polisene Parmense, Ita