Bergonzi as Tragic Hero and as Village Bumpkin
Among the several CD transfers of vintage Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on the Sony label, two of the more recent releases star Carlo Bergonzi in the tenor lead–one a tragedy, one a comedy.
Verdi’s “Ernani” (recently seen by many as an HD telecast at local theaters) is based on a play by Victor Hugo. Francesco Maria Piave, who wrote many a libretto for the Master, did a good job boiling it down to a straight love-plot and omitting most of the political matter that made Hugo’s play so startling for its day.
Basically, Ernani (Carlo Bergonzi), who turned bandit after Don Carlo killed his father and seized his property, is in love with Elvira (Leontyne Price). But so is Charles V of Spain (Cornell MacNeil), and so is Elvira’s uncle Don Silva (Giorgio Tozzi). Though not as incomprehensible as “Il Trovatore,” the plot of “Ernani” seems a little silly to audiences today, hinging as it does on bravado oaths and how Honor must be served. (W.S. Gilbert spoofed this sort of thing in “The Pirates of Penzance”; but Verdi was a hot blooded Italian and to him a man’s word meant something.)
As much as I dislike Franco Corelli’s excesses, I think I would have preferred him to Bergonzi in the role. The latter simply does not have the clarion tones that such a heroic role demands. The audience at that December 1, 1962 performance, however, adored him. An energetic reading of the score by conductor Thomas Schippers helps a distinctly impressive cast.
On March 5, 1966, Bergonzi appeared in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore” as the prize village bumpkin Nemorino, who loves the lovely Adina (Roberta Peters), who loves to read about Tristan and Isolde’s magic love potion and is herself loved by the army officer Belcore (Frank Guarrera). Known for opera buffa roles that require patter technique, Fernando Corena is the believable charlatan, Dr. Dulcamara.
The libretto by Felice Romani is little more than a sequence of duets; but the score is bubbly enough, especially under Schipper’s baton, to keep things from getting dramatically boring.
Here I find Bergonzi’s voice to be just right for the innocent he is playing. I did, however, find some fault with his bel canto technique in the gem of the score, “Una furtiva lagrima,” halfway into Act II. Others may disagree. Peters is at her usual chirpy soprano, Guarrera is an imposing Belcore, and Corena does what he does best. It is difficult to be funny on a CD, but he comes close.
Both operas have some cuts, “Ernani” more than “Elisir,” and both sets take up two CDs.