Bergonzi returns to Donizetti for U.S. swan song

March 26, 1993|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Staff Writer

Tenor Carlo Bergonzi, looking for all the world like the doting grandfather he is, sits attentively in the elegant Tremont Plaza Hotel suite where he and his wife Adele are staying during the Baltimore Opera Company's current run of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore."

Mr. Bergonzi, who will sing the role of Nemorino in the production that opens tomorrow night, smiles easily when asked how a 68-year-old performer like himself can convincingly portray Donizetti's lovestruck 18-year-old peasant swain.

"I did it when I was young; now I do it at the end of my career," says through an interpreter. "I do it because I love it and because it keeps me young."

There's a twinkle in Mr. Bergonzi's eye as he speaks. This will be his last American appearance before retiring from a career that has lasted more than 40 years and brought him recognition as one of the greatest Italian lyric tenors of all time.

During that time, he has sung with virtually every leading conductor of his era -- Herbert von Karajan, Tulio Serafin, Carlo Maria Guilini.

"I was too young to sing for Toscanini," Mr. Bergonzi says wistfully. "I would have loved to have worked with him."

Similarly, the list of divas Mr. Bergonzi has serenaded reads like a Who's Who of the mid-20th century's great sopranos: Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilson, Renata Scotto, Anna Moffo.

"I'm old, but fortunate that I have sung with some of the greatest voices of all time," Mr. Bergonzi says.

If he takes pride in the star-studded list of colleagues he has worked with over the years, he is equally aware of his own legend, that of the perennially youthful-sounding tenor whose singing continues to dazzle.

On his last performance on disc, a 1990 studio recording of Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur," Mr. Bergonzi and fellow sexagenarian Dame JoanSutherland pour out the most beautiful sound imaginable like two twenty-something lovebirds in the throes of ecstasy. There's almost something unsettling in the ardor he brings to the role, as if a man his age shouldn't be having such thoughts.

Which brings Mr. Bergonzi back to Nemorino, the country bumpkin of "L'Elisir." For if the intoxicating brew of "L'Elisir" refers to the legendary love potion of Tristan and Isolde, the role of Nemorino has been for Mr. Bergonzi a sort of eternal fountain of youth.

"In my career I've sung all the Verdian roles except Otello and Falstaff, all of Puccini, all the verismo operas," he says. "But I always return to Nemorino because it preserves the elasticity of the voice."

And what a voice. After a 1988 concert in Paris, Le Figaro published a rapturous review of Mr. Bergonzi's performance. "The youthfulness of his timbre, still so tender, light and easy, is stupefying," wrote the paper's critic. "He colors his singing with supreme taste, shading, suppleness. His phrasing was ideal."

A year earlier, New Yorker critic Andrew Porter employed similar superlatives to describe Mr. Bergonzi's 1987 Nemorino at the Metropolitan Opera. "His tones in "Adina Credimi" were melting," Mr. Porter wrote.

Mr. Bergonzi might even be said to owe his career as a tenor to Donizetti's "L'Elisir" in a convoluted sort of way.

As a young student at the conservatory in Palma in his native Italy, all of his teachers thought his voice naturally fell into the baritone range.

"My first teacher said, 'Your voice hasn't changed yet, but you're a baritone,' " Mr. Bergonzi recalls. "All the time I was a student no one ever told me I was really a tenor. I even made my debut as a baritone.

"Then one day after a performance of Madame Butterfly -- I remember, it was Oct. 12, 1950 -- I decided I wasn't going to sing baritone any more because I was a tenor," he says. "It wasn't that I didn't like being a baritone, because you know that is a real man's voice, but I just wasn't interested in playing Belcore."

Belcore is the insufferably arrogant army sergeant in "L'Elisir" whose suit for Adina's hand, waged with the implacable determination of a military campaign, drives poor Nemorino nearly to despair.

It took Mr. Bergonzi three months to transform himself into a tenor. He made his second debut -- as a tenor -- in 1951 in Giordano's "Andrea Chenier."

Mr. Bergonzi's first American appearance as Nemorino took place at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1970, opposite Renata Scotto as Adina and Fernando Corena as Dulcamara. Since then, he has sung the role countless times in opera houses all over the world.

Tomorrow's performance features Hungarian soprano Andrea Rost as Adina, bass Joszef Gregor as Dulcamara and Phyllis Burg in the role of Giannetta.

The role of Belcore will be sung by Phillip Zawisza, who was the winner of last year's Baltimore Opera Vocal Competition.

Mr. Bergonzi will sign records at An Die Music record shop in Towson at 3 p.m. Sunday.

L'ELISIR D'AMORE

When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday and April 2. The final performance will be a 3 p.m. matinee April 4.

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: From $18.

Call: (410) 685-0692.

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