In real life, one occasionally sees wealthy and powerful men romantically squiring women who are young enough to be their daughters and even their granddaughters. In the operatic world this is almost unheard of. The rare tenor who goes on singing past his later 50s has usually left behind romantic roles to assume character roles. Basses and baritones occasionally sing well into their 60s -- but they take the parts of older men.
This makes the case of Carlo Bergonzi little less than amazing. This 68-year-old tenor, who first came to international attention about 40 years, is now singing the role of Nemorino -- the teen-age romantic hero of Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" -- in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of the opera.
As he walked out on stage Saturday night to sing his first aria, one experienced a certain amount of trepidation. It was, after all, almost 20 years ago that people first began to talk about how well Carlo Bergonzi was still singing. Was this appearance, which the tenor says will be his operatic swan song, going to be a touching sentimental gesture or was it going to be a fiasco.
It was neither. Carlo Bergonzi is not just a singer who used to be great, he's a singer who is still great. The vocal technique is still phenomenally assured, the voice still has a good deal of the exquisite ring that characterized it before some of the members of Saturday's audience were even born, and the singing had all of the elegance that made Bergonzi's name synonymous with class in the operatic world.
And though Bergonzi looks as if he has been enjoying many a high-carbohydrate meal with his grandchildren, he is still a consummate Nemorino. He never hammed up the part for laughs, and he made Nemorino sweet, lovable and sincere -- someone deserving of the heroine, Adina.
There were, of course, indications of the tenor's age. He carefully shepherded his powers, saving his voice in larger ensembles -- in which he could scarcely be heard -- so that he could pour it out in the arias and the duets. And, if he is no longer comfortable with the high-lying "Una furtiva lagrima," he still turned in a creditable performance.
This "L'Elisir" was, in fact, one of the BOC's better productions. As Adina, Andrea Rost sang with agility and wit. There were moments when her voice turned a little hard but she was also able to sing with a winning sweetness of tone and demeanor. Philip Zawiszja hammed up the role of swaggering Sgt. Belcore to exactly the right proportions, singing smoothly, though with a voice that left a few questions about its size. Joszef Gregor was a comic and consistently musical Dulcamare and a young, Baltimore-born soprano named Phyllis Burg was a vivacious and accurate Gianetta.
Ian Strasfogel's stage direction was simple and to the point, Holly Highfill's inexpensive sets were attractive and John Lehmeyer's costumes were beautiful to look at. Except for one or two minor mishaps in terms of entrances, the orchestra was competently conducted by Bruno Aprea.