On that evening Andrea Chénier was given at the Opernhaus with Carlo Bergonzi. For that
special event, the prices were tripled. I was aware of the negative press reviews that had
been published in the French press. All stating that he lacked vocal power for such roles as
Radames, Manrico and that hearing Bergonzi live was not the Bergonzi one heard on records as his
voice was quite small. But I decided to go anyway. As you will see, it was a big mistake.
The performance started well with Norman Mittelmann singing Gérard and
Gerry de Groot Maddalena. After the diverse exchanges during the festive party, Bergonzi
appeared. When Bergonzi first uttered 'Madama la Contessa', the tone was slim, barely audible. As
this continued during the ensuing short scene, one was expecting that Bergonzi was saving
himself for 'Un dì all'azzurro spazio'. No such luck, his singing was dull, his top was
short and the whole affaire was lifeless. There was polite applause. The Zürich public was
patient at that time. Bergonzi was smiling and pointing to his throat.
During the second act, Bergonzi was completely covered by Heinz Borst, the local first basso singing Roucher.
'Credo a una possanza arcana' went for nothing. During the duet with de Groot, Bergonzi
could not be heard. At the end of act two, the audience was rather puzzled.
During act three, both Mittelmann and de Groot received deserved ovations for their arias. As for
Bergonzi, his 'Sì, fui soldato' was received in total silence. At the end of each act,
Bergonzi came out smiling happily during the curtain calls. By now, one could sense that the
audience had enough and was not appreciating the fact that the prices were tripled to hear
a performance of a role that was much better sung by the local tenors Glade Peterson and
Albert da Costa.
During act 4, things turned from bad to worst. Bergonzi singing of 'Come un bel
dì di maggio' was abominable. All high notes were way off pitch. He was booed by the irritated audience.
Bergonzi kept pointing at his throat, trying to show an indisposition.
The final duet was reduced to a solo for the soprano. At the final curtain calls the
soprano, the baritone and Nello Santi, the conductor, were cheered. Why Bergonzi wanted also
to came out for a solo curtain, after the reception of his last aria, remains a mystery. The
booing was worse than the one at the end of the aria.
If Bergonzi was indeed indisposed: why did he sing in the first place and why was no announcement made at all.
I heard Bergonzi many times after that. Once again in Zürich in a concert at the Tonhalle
in 1986, his voice was small and slightly off pitch. I also remember him in a Bohème in Boston
in 1977 where he could not be heard and I walked out. Bergonzi had a good style, but a voice
not suited for Grand Opera, where he lacks heft and squillo. What one hears on records cannot
be reproduced live. The French critics from the early 1960s were right. This was one of the
biggest disappointments as an operagoer.