The great Verdi tenor passes on two weeks after his 90th birthday.

Carlo Bergonzi, one of the greatest Verdi tenors of all time, has died at the age of 90 after a remarkably long and successful career. At the height of his fame when Corelli and Di Stefano ruled the high Cs, Bergonzi outlasted, and to many ears, out-sung them all, finally hanging up his operatic hat in 1996. Reknowned for his intelligent, musical approach and natural, yet refined vocal style, his place in music history is assured.

Bergonzi was born the son of a Parmesan cheese-maker in Vidalenzo, near Parma in the Emilia-Romagna of Italy in 1924. He began his training at the age of 14 at the Parma Conservatory, and originally sang as a baritone. His studies were interrupted by World War II, during which he was held for a while in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He resumed his training and debuted as in 1948 as Figaro in The Barber of Seville. The next three years saw him singing roles like Malatesta, Belcore, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, Marcello and even Rigoletto.

During the latter part of that period, however, he retrained his voice and in 1951 he made his debut as a tenor in the title role of Andrea Chénier at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari. In the same year, the Italian state radio engaged him to sing in broadcasts of the lesser-known Verdi operas to mark the 50th anniversary of the Giuseppe Verdi’s death, thus beginning Bergonzi’s close association with the works of that composer.

He made his La Scala debut in 1953, creating the title role in Jacopo Napoli’s opera Mas’ Aniello, and the same year sang Alvaro in La Forza del Destino in London. His Metropolitan Opera debut as Radames in Aida in 1956 and he went on to sing there in over 300 performances.

His international career saw him singing the major Italian repertoire in all the major houses throughout the 1960s and 1970s. His operatic partners included sopranos as diverse as Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, Joan Sutherland and Birgit Nilsson. Not noted for his acting or for any matinee idol looks, Bergonzi won legions of fans for his heartfelt approach and evident joy in singing. “I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino,” he told The New York Times in 1981, “but I have tried to learn to act through the voice”.

Never pushing the sound, his instrument held up well. From the 1980s onwards he preferred to concentrate on recital work, managing to sing on well into the 1990s, only retiring after a Carnegie Hall recital in 1996. In May 2000, however, it was announced that he would come out of retirement at the age of 75 to sing the title role in Otello for the first time in a concert performance in New York. The packed house included James Levine and all three of the Three Tenors but sadly after only two acts Bergonzi was unable to complete the performance, blaming his vocal difficulties on irritation caused by the air-conditioning in his dressing-room.

He left a particularly rich legacy of recordings (indeed, Decca only released a substantial box of his Verdi recordings this month in celebration of his 90th birthday) and his legendary Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci under Karajan is still the one to beat.

After his retirement, Bergonzi was most often to be found in residence at his hotel in Busseto, aptly named “I due Foscari” after the Verdi opera of the same name. He died in Milan after a short illness and is survived by his wife, Adele.

Carlo Bergonzi (July 13, 1924 – July 25, 2014)

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