Opera acting footnote

Forgot, in my earlier posts about opera acting, to mention Carlo Bergonzi, one of my dearest, most loved opera actors. 

Which is interesting, because on stage he was more or less a lump. I remember seeing him late in his career in Ballo at the Met. When he first entered, you’d be forgiven if you wondered if he even knew he was on stage. Or supposed to be acting.

Then he started to sing, and (especially if you knew the opera) you’d be mesmerized. Such truth, such revelation, such honesty, and such moment-to-moment acting detail in his singing! I hung on every word. In the last act, in the recitative before his big aria, when he sang the words “l’immenso ocean,” I could almost see the “immense ocean” stretched before me. He sang those words with such eloquent sadness (since the ocean would divide him from the woman he loved). 

After a while, he made everyone else on stage look like they were just feebly pretending to act. Even though, physically, he did almost no acting at all.

Another, smaller high point: the 1963 studio recording of Kurt Weill’s Broadway hit, Lady in the Dark, featuring two opera singers, Risë Stevens and John Reardon, she toward the end of her career, he in the first half of his. They’re both so nimble, so lively, and so funny that you’d swear they’d been singing nothing but Broadway for all of their lives. With just one footnote. Reardon’s voice is so gorgeous that, if you didn’t know who he was, you might think, “Wow, maybe he should try singing opera.” 

Which isn’t to say that Stevens doesn’t sound terrific, too. But she’s singing in a Broadway belt voice, so you wouldn’t immediately think of her in opera. Reardon’s baritone sounds like it would work on either side of this sometimes porous fence. 

The CD isn’t currently in print, but it’s available used on Amazon.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Eddie Lew says

    I was with you the night Bergonzi sang that late Ballo; he was indeed superb!

    The myth that opera singers can’t act is just that, a myth. You Tube is full of clips from Italian and German TV from the 50s and 60s that disproves that stupid myth. Opera acting didn’t start with Sellers, Bondy or Zimmermann. One particular clip is Corelli (!) as Canio in Pagliacci (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByDCKZOKbYY); none of the “wunderkinder” directors” could have gotten that performance from him because they would have been compelled to get between the singer and the audience.

    An eye-opener is Bjorling’s reactions to Tebaldi’s “Mi chiamano Mimi” from “La Boheme” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oG4cLyigq8). He would have passed any stringent technique class in any drama school. In addition, a Bondy or Zimmermann would have closed Tebaldi off from her emotion to allow their “interpretation.”

    Whoever the directors were of the above performance understood opera and the clips are a towering example of what opera was like before it was dragged into the cesspool of modern pop-culture.

    The directors must stop intruding themselves and their agenda between the singer – and the composers – and the audience. And above all, the myth that there was no acting before these “genius” directors arrived must stop. They’re charlatans whose egos can’t outdo the composer’s theatrical savvy and singers’ hearts.

    Eddie Lew

  2. Robert Berger says

    I never had the opportunity to see Bergonzi live,but I’ve laways admired his singing from recordings.

    The late Luciano Pavarotti was also a much better actor than he was usually given credit for,and fortunately I did see him often on TV and later on DVDs.

    He could bring characters vividly to life. For example,as Nemorino in L’Elisir D’Amore, he was lovably goofy and had comic timing that would be the envy of any comedian. As Idomeneo in the Met’s production of that opera, he was dignified and truly king-like.