If a bomb had been dropped on Carnegie Hall on the night of May 3, 2000, many of the important figures from the operatic world of the last three generations would have been lost. It seemed that everyone who wasn’t working on some other stage that night was there, including all three of The Three Tenors, plus Cecilia Bartoli, Sherrill Milnes, Anna Moffo, Licia Albanese, James Levine and so many more. Their much esteemed and beloved colleague Carlo Bergonzi had announced his intention of singing – at the age of 75 – his first-ever performance of the heroic, difficult title role in Verdi’s Otello in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York. This brave artist was daring to attempt the impossible, and they – we – were hoping for – and expecting – a miracle. It never came.
Almost as soon as the initial “Esultate!” didn’t ring out, it became obvious that what was needed was not the tenor’s long-admired phrasing and still-intact musical insight. Otello requires qualities that are no longer – or never have been – Bergonzi’s to give: stentorian power and a mighty, thrusting top. From a weak beginning, things went downhill fast. His desperation as he cupped hand to ear attempting to launch Verdi’s arching phrases only to have them shatter and fall was distressing to witness. By the duet that closes the second act, Bergonzi’s singing had turned into hoarse shouts aiming upward but not striking any specific pitches. My throat began to hurt and an entire, packed house ached in sympathy. During the intermission, we heard the buzz that his wife, Adele, had fainted in her box, and we knew that what we had been hearing could not be endured for the entire night. Although a few phrases came out relatively well, the performance was, by any standard, a disaster. When the announcement was made that Mr. Bergonzi would not return to the stage for the 3rd and 4th acts, some people actually applauded, probably in nervous relief. They were angrily “shushed” by other audience members.
Something strange was happening that night that went beyond the obvious. Uncharacteristically, the operatic world didn’t rejoice in the drama of the defeat, but rather felt sorry and grieved for the great tenor’s failure. The audience wanted to see the man succeed, and this is a testament to his beloved legacy.
What other artist could have escaped unscathed from such an evening? I can’t think of any, besides Callas, and even then the New York Times would have seized the opportunity to kill her critically. But in this case, that never happened. Instead, the Times review spoke truthfully and almost sadly. It went so far as to compliment what he stands for and even to blame the conductor for “enabling” him. Audience members and others who had heard about the evening just felt sad. Some who had attended rehearsals swore that they had heard good things and the performance was just a bad night. Others insisted that, although many beautiful phrases had, indeed, been heard, Bergonzi never actually sang through the entire role in continuity. Backstage, after the event, there were signs posted in the corridors stating, “Mr. Bergonzi Has Left the Hall.” In a music world that often enjoys that drama of watching the mighty fall from the sky, people were instead running with verbal nets to defend Mr. Bergonzi. What is it about the tenor beast that makes us see Winnie the Pooh instead of the Grizzly Bear?
While the entire opera world buzzed, the tenor, himself, seemed unbothered and unbowed. Showing up that weekend for a scheduled masterclass he was holding, a dapper, smiling Bergonzi assured his concerned friends, students and colleagues that an overly chilled dressing room had caused his throat to close; it was a temporary setback and nothing more.
As the dust settles over the event, all that witnessed the evening will recall that an unfortunate misjudgment was made. Any artist is sure to have one great regret. This wonderful tenor was given the opportunity to “go home again.” What no one had ever told him – or maybe the maxim doesn’t exist in his language – is that you can’t.