Carlo Bergonzi (1924-2014) enjoyed a long career as a leading tenor with all of the world’s major opera companies. He was born in Polesine Parmense near Parma. During World War II he was an active anti-Nazi and in 1943 was imprisoned by the Germans. After being released by the Russians he walked over 100 km to reach an American base. On the way he contracted typhoid fever. By the time he reached Parma, he weighed 80 pounds. He made up for this loss in his later years.

He began his operatic career in 1948 as a baritone. After several years he realized that he was a tenor and retrained his voice for that range. He made his debut as a tenor in Bari in 1951. By 1953 he was at La Scala. His American debut was in Chicago in 1955. He was at the Met the following year, giving 323 performances over the next 32 years.

I heard him often during the first five years of his appearances in New York. After leaving New York I didn’t hear him in performance again until 1981 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago when he substituted for an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir D’amore. Though he looked like a giant inverted bowling pin, his singing was great.

I also met him in a parking lot sometime in the early 80s. Between meetings in different Italian cities, my wife and I decided to make a side trip to Busseto to visit Verdi country. As we knew Bergonzi ran a small hotel and restaurant in the town, I Due Foscari, we booked a room for a single night. As we drove up to the hotel, Bergonzi was in the parking lot and motioned us to the spot he wanted he wanted us to deposit our car. That was the sum of our interactions during the four days we stayed at his Inn. There was no problem extending our visit as we were the only guests. I know the date was after 1981 as the small lobby of the hotel prominently displayed a large framed poster announcing the Met’s 25th Anniversary Bergonzi Gala autographed by Pavarotti who performed during the event. We also had dinner at the tenor’s restaurant. The food was excellent.

The reason we extended our time in Bussetto was because the town and its environs are full of points of interest. Verdi’s birthplace is in Le Roncole just outside of the town. The Villa Verdi is in Sant’Agata just outside of Busseto in the opposite direction. Cremona is a short drive away.

Bergonzi was particularly known for his singing of Verdi’s operas, though he was equally fine in all the other standard Italian tenor roles. His voice was a lirico spinto that while not characterized by an opulent sound was finely produced across its entire range. I think it was one of those voices that sounds better in the theater than on recordings. Below are 10 examples of Bergonzi’s singing that should give a good idea why he was so successful for such a long time.

First Verdi. The selections are presented in the order of their composition except for the final song. Ernani was composed in 1844 to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. It was the first of the 10 the writer was to provide for Verdi. Based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani it was a big success and the first Verdi opera to win a large space in the international repertory. Come rugiada al cespite is in the first act. Ernani tells his bandit gang that the woman he loves, Elvira, is about to be forced to marry an old man. He plans to abduct, or from his perspective save her.

Verdi’s I Masnadieri is a four-act opera written for Jenny Lind. Based on Schiller’s Die Räuber it was first performed in London under the direction of the composer. Among the attendees at the first performance were Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the Duke of Wellington. All though initially successful it disappeared after 15 years. O mio castel paterno is from Act 1.

Quando le sere al placido occurs in scene 3 of Act 2 in Verdi’s Luisa Miller. First performed in 1849 it was Verdi’s 16th opera. It too was based on a Schiller play – Kabale und Liebe. The aria is one of Verdi’s finest creations for the tenor. It requires great exclamatory power as well as the ability to carry a line of exceptional lyrical beauty.

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera is among his greatest creations. It has everything – wonderful music, arias of the finest construction, passion, and exceptional dramatic impact. Forse la soglia attinse opens the second scene of Act 3. In it, Riccardo or King Gustavo depending on whether the opera is set in colonial Massachusetts or Sweden, shows his evolution from a lighthearted person of power into a mature man ready to sacrifice his own desire for the good of the woman he loves and her husband who was his best friend but who will kill him in the next scene. Another of Verdi’s great works for the tenor.

La vita è inferno all’infelice … O tu che in seno agli angeli occurs at the beginning of the Act 3 of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destinio. It is an ode to life’s misfortunes accompanied by a cloak of self-pity. Yet Don Alvaro, the tenor who sings it, has more disasters ahead of him than those he has hitherto experienced.

Verdi’s Requiem Mass written in honor of the novelist Alessandro Manzoni has a tenor aria in the middle of its ‘Dies Irae’ section. Ingemisco is often performed as a solo as part of a recital or recording.

Bergonzi was equally at home in the works of Puccini. The latter’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, was his first success. Donna non vidi mai depicts Des Grieux’s reaction to Manon’s youthful beauty. It is the first of a succession of great tenor arias all related to the tenor’s love for the soprano.

Che gelida manina is Rodolfo’s reaction to Mimì’s cold hand just after they’ve met in his garret on a very chilly Christmas Eve. Another operatic case of love at first sight. La Bohème is performed so often at the Met that it can sometimes be heard when the house is dark.

Recondita armonia is in the first act of Tosca. The artist Mario Cavaradossi is painting a picture of Mary Magdalene based on the blonde Marchesa Atavanti. He comments on the strange harmony between the fair-haired Marchesa and his dark-haired lover Floria Tosca.

Finally, a song. Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) was an Italian composer of songs. After emerging from poverty he became very successful and moved to England where even more fame and wealth awaited him. He became a British citizen and was knighted by his friend King Edward VII. Ideale is one of his best-known and frequently performed works.

Bergonzi’s long and distinguished career overlapped those of Björling, Tucker, Del Monaco, Corelli, Di Stefano, Pavarotti, and Domingo. That he was able to remain at the top of opera’s list for so long and among so many other great tenors was because of the excellence of his technique and the expressive power of his singing.