Bergonzi’s Otello a Bittersweet Affair
by Joseph So / May 17, 2000
When the great Carlo Bergonzi announced his American Farewell Recital at Carnegie Hall on April 17th 1994, I couldn’t resist the occasion of hearing him for one last time. It was a supremely nostalgic evening, with almost as much applause as singing, and love flowed freely across the footlights from both directions. It was an artistic and box office triumph.
Imagine my surprise when I read in the papers barely a year later that Signor Bergonzi would be in New York for an evening of Neapolitan Songs. Apparently, like so many opera divas and divos, saying “goodbye” is hard to do. Since then, the Italian tenor has appeared on the Levine Gala, and last year, he sang “Niun mi tema” from Otello. It was so well received that a complete assumption of the Moor was in the works.
This happened on May 3, under the auspices of Eve Queler and the Opera Orchestra of New York at Carnegie Hall. A sense of occasion was very much in evidence, with the attendance of the Three Tenors in a box, plus such luminaries as James Levine, Anna Moffo, Licia Albanese, Lucine Amara, Sherrill Milnes, and Aprile Millo in the audience.
So it was very sad that the event turned out to be not what Signor Bergonzi had hoped. From his first appearance with the Esultate! outburst, things did not go well. He cracked on the small ornamentation in the vocal line right off the bat, though the voice was recognizably Bergonzi, with the familiar timbre largely unchanged. The Act One love duet went better, with a nicely managed high A in “Venere splende”. Act Two found Bergonzi in deteriorating voice, with little volume and lots of flat high notes. The duet with Iago (Alberto Gazale), which requires dramatic intensity and ample volume, found him struggling mightily with the tessitura. Whole passages were flat, with places where he even sang an octave lower. With his head buried in the score, any time the vocal line rises above an F, he raised his left hand to cup his ear, as if to hear himself. It was clearly a struggle for vocal survival at this point, with little left for any textual or dramatic interpretation.
Following a lengthy intermission, an official came on to announce that Bergonzi was indisposed and Acts 3 and 4 would be sung by Antonio Barasorda. The audience was clearly disappointed, but the performance actually improved considerably. Barasorda, with the right vocal weight and timbre, was able to do the role full justice. The rest of the cast was able to relax and concentrate on music-making. Kallen Esperian (Desdemona) gave an inspired performance, with a middle voice of great beauty recalling Tebaldi, only in the upper reaches does it turn thin and metallic. Alberto Gazale (Iago), making his American debut, was a real find, with a Verdi baritone of substance and pleasing tone. Chinese tenor Jianyi Zhang was an excellent Cassio. The OONY orchestra, ragged in the beginning, regrouped and played with discipline if not verve.
The burning question in the immediate aftermath was – why did he do it? Even in his prime, Bergonzi never had an Otello voice. Perhaps it was foolhardy to tackle this most daunting of roles at the grand age of 75. It was rumoured that he sang an excellent dress rehearsal four days earlier. Perhaps because of indisposition or nerves, he was unable to do it when it counted. At a masterclass at Hunter College two days later, he spoke openly about the incident, blaming his failure on the drying effects of the air conditioning. Now there is talk of issuing the dress rehearsal on CD – even the improbable rumour of a studio recording. Bergonzi’s place in opera is undisputed. Let’s just hope that, for his sake and for the sake of those loyal admirers of which I include myself, his reputation would not suffer another blow like this one in the future.
Wednesday, May 3, 2000
Opera Orchestra of New York
Eve Queler, conductor
Cast in order of appearance:
Montano Charles Robert Stephens
Cassio Jianyi Zhang
Iago Alberto Gazale
Roderigo Benjamin Brecher
Otello Carlo Bergonzi/Antonio Barasorda
Desdemona Kallen Esperian
Emilia Milena Kitic
Herald Kyle Ketelsen
Lodovico Paul Plishka