Bergonzi, born in Vidalenzo, near Parma in 1924, was initially held up in his progress towards becoming the stellar Italian tenor of his generation.
First of all, he spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp during the second world war. Then, in 1948, Bergonzi made his operatic debut – but as a baritone. He soon realised his voice was more suited to the tenor range and in his mid-20s he retrained. By 1953 he had caused a stir at Milan’s La Scala and world fame followed.
Bergonzi was best known for his performances in Verdi operas. Favourite roles included Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. A poor-ish actor, he was nonetheless an intelligent musician and supported his essentially lyrical voice with legendary breath control.
Bergonzi was aware of his own limitations, telling the New York Times in 1981: “I know I don’t look like Rudolph Valentino. I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing.”
But it is the large catalogue of recordings from his earlier days for which Bergonzi will deservedly be remembered. Bergonzi was always interested in unusual repertoire: his first radio recital, in 1951, concentrated on rare Verdi arias. In 1976, he made a recording of every major Verdi aria.