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Artist at Work


Tuesday night at the Lyric Theatre, during a piano rehearsal of the Baltimore Opera's forthcoming production of "L'Elixir d'Amore" ("The Elixir of Love"), a very ordinary looking older man with a figure that attested to many good meals removed the coat slung over his shoulders, walked confidently on stage, opened his mouth and filled the auditorium with golden sound.

I might as well start with one fact: Carlo Bergonzi, one of the handful of great operatic tenors of our time, was never a glamorous fellow. He owed nothing of his reputation to the fluttering of ladies' hearts even when in April 1959, only three years into his career at the Metropolitan Opera, he sang Canio in "Pagliacci" here in Baltimore's Lyric Theatre.

His appearance changed little over the years when I heard him at the old Met in "L'Elixir d'Amore" with Roberta Peters (March 1966), then often at the new Met. In "Forza Del Destino" (October 1982), my program note declared: "Bergonzi may be nearing end of career but sang with thrilling care and beauty that shamed the rest."

Two facts have placed Carlo Bergonzi among the major singing artists of our time: the beauty of his voice, and the uncomprising precision of his artistry. Hundreds of singers make careers in opera without either of these attributes because they have strong voices and adequate stage presence. (Opera could not happen night after night at the major houses without them.)

Last Tuesday we expected to hear Mr. Bergonzi give a lesson in artistry as he husbanded a former voice, and prepared to sing his farewell performances in America. What the fascinated chorus members on stage and the handful in the auditorium heard was a focused voice still as sweet as honey, produced with so little apparent effort that one forgot the skill behind every note.

I also half expected to see an aging artist fretting and biting his nails, perhaps merely coasting on his laurels and strutting like a divo to keep his younger colleagues in place. Mr. Bergonzi sat comfortably in the auditorium with his wife, then casually shucked his coat and climbed on stage without fuss in time for cues. He played with and to the others (all of them very able), never attempting to take more than his share of the stage. And he worked. He wiped abundant sweat for several minutes after each major scene.

He played Nemorino earnestly at first, and then . . . there he was waltzing lightly and confidently around the stage with a happy grin after drinking the magic elixir sold him by the charlatan Doctor Dulcimara. (The elixir is only wine, but Nemorino is a lovesick innocent who expects it magically to win him the heart of the indifferent Adino.)

Then one of Nemorino's two serious moments arrives, when the object of his unrequited love decides to marry a strutting soldier and he begs her to hold off a day. (Dr. Dulcimara, who will have skipped town by then, declares that's how long the elixir takes to work.) "Adina Credimi" is a beautiful lyrical passage, full of yearning urgency. Suddenly, under Mr. Bergonzi, his voice soaring, it became such a passionate plea that it brought tears to the eyes. In piano rehearsal!

A few moments later, as the soldier threatens him, Mr. Bergonzi puts up his fists and hops like a bantam rooster, then thinks better of it and scurries behind a startled and grinning chorus member. This did not appear to have been rehearsed earlier, any more than the way he sliced an apple to feign indifference, flicking thin layers close to his thumb -- to judge from the stage director's sudden laughter.

Nemorino's second serious moment arrives with the great lyric aria near the end of the opera, "Una Furtiva Lagrima," one of those arias by which tenors from Caruso and Gigli to Pavarotti are judged. Mr. Bergonzi sang the middle passage at nearly zero volume, wisely saving his voice for performance. Then the aria took him over and the volume began to increase, spun full-blown with the famous Bergonzi legato. He caressed the notes. At the end he grinned, and held up a thumb.

Ha. See? I'm still Bergonzi.

William McCloskey has written about opera and has appeared on the Saturday opera quiz from the Metropolitan Opera.

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