I read that renowned opera tenor Carlo Bergonzi died yesterday at the age of 90. I don't know all that much about opera. I'm not a huge fan, though I do listen on occasion, and have been to a few. (My favorite is Turandot by Giuseppe Verdi.) And in its write-up about Bergonzi, the A.P. wrote that Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi was "considered one of the most authoritative interpreters of Verdi's operas."
I mention all this because, among those few operas I've attended, one was Il Trovatore by Verdi, that starred...Carlo Bergonzi. I was just a kid at the time, probably around 16 -- hardly the time to appreciate opera -- but this was absolutely memorable.
We were on a family trip to Europe, and when in Italy my folks got tickets to the Verona Opera. But this wasn't like any mere opera, this was Italy where opera is like a contact sport, opera crossed with World Cup soccer. I'm not exaggerating much. It wasn't done in a stuffy theater with everyone in the audience dressed in their evening finery. It was performed outdoors, in the Arena di Verona, an ancient Roman amphitheater filled with crowds (you wouldn't dream of haughtily calling them "opera patrons") that not only occupied the grandstands and upperdecks, but also covered the grounds in the middle -- where we sat. If I had to guess from this distance of time, there were probably over 20,000 people there. Sorry, fans. That's "fans" in the purest sense, as in "fanatics."
This really was like a sporting event to Italian opera lovers, a thorough spectacle experience. Cheering, booing in complaint, yelling back at the performers, crying out, hissing, stomping their feet, even occasional people standing up and singing along when the spirit moved them. (To this day, my father still loves to do his impersonation of the "Bravo, Bergonzi!!!" roars that emanated from the arena. My own favorite memory was when the tenor -- who I assume must have been Carlo Bergonzi -- sang a magnificent aria, and so was compelled by the crowd to perform an encore. He dove back in, but the strain caused his voice to crack -- the understanding crowd gave him a cheer all the louder.
(Nice, too, was reading this passage from the A.P. story. It doesn't saying anything noteworthy --- except in the context of this piece here and saying, "See!" -- in giving Bergzoni's credits, they wrote, "He also sang nine seasons at La Scala in Milan and 21 seasons at the Arena open-air summer theater in Verona." See!).
What I also remember about that event -- and it was quite an event -- is that both the tenor (who, again, I have to assume was Bergonzi) and soprano were staying in our hotel. In fact, on the same floor. I discovered this while wandering around the hallways, and hearing singing coming from within the two rooms, with phonograph music accompanying them in the background. I quickly ran back to our room to get my trusty tape recorder -- I was recording sounds from Europe -- and raced back to outside those opera rooms and recorded the singing. I still have the tape. (The most fun was the soprano. At one point she trilled to a crescendo, but missed the note and screeched. What you hear on the tape is the music stopping, the phonograph needle being replaced to the starting point, and the soprano trying again...and getting it right this time, nailing the crescendo spot on.)
So, it was with a warm memory that I read about Carlo Bergonzi's passing today. It may not be my field of expertise, but it was a great experience to have.
In offering a tribute to Bergonzi, the Metropolitan Opera (where he performed over the course of 32 years and 22 roles) wrote that he was "particularly praised for the beauty and warmth of his singing and for his elegant attention to style and phrasing."
Here's a sampling of that elegance, warmth and beauty, in 15 minutes of excerpts from a career that continued until 1995, when he retired to teach. Even if you don't care much for opera, try to watch a minute or so. As the expression goes...this guy is really good.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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