Bergonzi -- Met's living lesson in the art of singing

Listening to Carlo Bergonzi singing Riccardo in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" at the Metropolitan Opera proved anew -- if it ever needed proving -- that there is no replacement for experience.

Despite notions that most lose their powers in their 60s, history is positively littered with singers who performed well in that age bracket: Lilli Lehman, Beniamino Gigli, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, just to name four

The obvious lesson here is that these singers not only had formidable instruments, they knew how to use them well -- each had (and in the case of the still-active Miss Nilsson, has) an incomparable technique.

Mr. Bergonzi is a walking singing lesson to any aspiring young opera performer, or anyone who cares to admire seasoned professionalism at work. He also stands as proof that the continuity of the bel canto style continues today. And quite frankly it remains the only successful route to a good and prosperous career.

The cycle of new young singing machines that make lots of bland, loud, unmodulated noises will have to run its course before this noble art form is to find renewed vigor. Meanwhile, we can be grateful that a Carlo Bergonzi is around to remind us all that experience has its just rewards.

Mr. Bergonzi, always the epitome of the tasteful, elegant singer, began as a baritone. Perhaps that is why one has never turned to him for a thrilling tenorial top range, the way one turned to a Corelli or a Bjorling. But like Bjorling before him, Bergonzi has been able to sing a wide range of roles, even those that have dramatic overtones, with an essentially lyric instrument.

Some five seasons back, he returned to the Met as Cavarodssi and was so noticeably out of form one wondered if he would ever spring back. Yet a few seasons later he tackled Radames with tremendous success. I can remember a tour a few seasons ago where Bergonzi offered a magical rodolfo in "La Boheme" and a thrilling "Trovatore" Manrico. Last season, he was a memorable Canio ("Pagliacci") and Enzo ("La Gioconda") as well.

This year he has returned to one of his past great Met triumphs -- Riccardo in "Ballo." The tenor has recorded the role twice -- once with Birgit Nilsson, once with Leontyne Price. The recordings show off a progressive dramatic grasp of the role. And now he positively sparkles in the role. The voice is a bit short up top -- it tends to show a moment of stress here and there, and some of the notes do not always lock into place. But since Bergonzi has never been a king of the high "C" or even the high B-flat, it does not matter all that much.

For a singer whose career was built only on high notes, that slipping security could be a tremendous crisis, and could breed audience disfavor.(Rosa Ponselle retired in her prime because she was in mortal terror of cracking on a high note.) When a singer develops a style, and that style becomes the focal point rather than just some top notes, he or she can then compensate for a muffed note with a magical follow-up phrase. This is what Bergonzi has mastered so memorably in the latter part of his career. If a top note worked, he held on to it ringingly. If it didn't quite, the next phrase was enough to liquefy an iceberg.

His way with words has always been something special, and now he veritably revels in them, projecting them so vividly that even those who do not understand the language are sure to know just about everything he is singing about nonetheless.

Michelangelo Veltri could hardly be called inexperienced. But his insights into Verdi are neither profound nor even particularly interesting. Things kept moving under his baton -- at times quite oppositely to Verdi's dramatic intent. Thus, Bergonzi was not given, in this routine framework, the sort of support that would have been a dotting of the "i's" and crossing of the "t's" of his superbly honed portrayal.

A good Verdian would have helped Teresa Zylis-Gara come better to terms with Amelia. She has trouble sustaining those long spun lines and elegant phrases. At times, lines seemed to disappear, then unexpectedly reappear. She did not show the vocal strength to ride the orchestra, though at her best showed that Amelia could become a good role for her, even if she does not become a great Amelia.

The rest of the cast was familiar from last season when this dreadful production was new -- Louis Quilico and Judith Blegen both in better voice this time around, Juilen Robbins sounding more resonant, and Bianca Berini, sounding more distant.

Elijah Moshinsky's name has been dropped from the credits, and several of his most inane ideas have been excised from the production. Gone also is the motel-like balcony that ruined the second act, replaced by three eerie scaffolds , but still Peter Wexler's set does not grow any less ugly with age.It seems a shame that this wonderful Verdi opera is saddled with -- even now -- a most unacceptable production.

Curiously enough, a few nights later i heard a "Magic Flute" that had Lucia Popp as Pamina, and it was another sampling of the same. Miss Popp was this Gunther Rennert-Marc Chagall production's first Queen of the Night. Now she is Pamina, and from the moment she comes on stage, she radiates in the role. She has made it very much her own, and even if she did not efface mem3ries of other singers in this part, it was one of those wonderfully solid, substantial portrayals that used to be the norm at the Met and, in these increasingly lean years, is becoming harder to find.

One could certainly see that David Rendall needs more experience than he has as Tamino.Though this is the best thing I have heard him do, he does not have his voice under full or expressive control. John MacCurdy has all the experience imaginable -- a long career of service to the Met -- yet his Sarastro was oddly off form. Zdzislawa Donat's Queen of the Night was tenuous and pale. Dale Duesing was a personable if broad Papageno who diminished his good effect somewhat with some uneven singing.

Where experience was most needed was in the orchestra pit. But then again, it has been too long since there has been a really good "Flute" conductor in that pit. Lawrence Foster kept things moving pertly along, taking his cues from the singers rather than from Mozart, but at least it never sank into dullness or tedium.

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