Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2014. Show all posts

25 July 2019

Carlo Bergonzi – operatic tenor

Singer whose style was called the epitome of Italian vocal art

Carlo Bergonzi made his professional opera debut in the role of Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville
Carlo Bergonzi made his professional opera debut in
the role of Figaro in Rossini's The Barber of Seville
Carlo Bergonzi, one of the great Italian opera singers of the 20th century, died on this day in 2014 in Milan.

He specialised in singing roles from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, helping to revive some of the composer’s lesser-known works.

Between the 1950s and 1980s he sang more than 300 times with the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the New York Times, in its obituary, described his voice as ‘an instrument of velvety beauty and nearly unrivalled subtlety’.

Bergonzi was born in Polesine Parmense near Parma in Emilia-Romagna in 1924. He claimed to have seen his first opera, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, at the age of six.

He sang in his local church and soon began to appear in children’s roles in operas in Busseto, a town near where he lived.

Bergonzi spent two years in a prisoner of war camp during World War II
Bergonzi spent two years in a prisoner
of war camp during World War II 
He left school at the age of 11 and started to work in the same cheese factory as his father in Parma.  At the age of 16 he began vocal studies as a baritone at the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma.

During World War II, Bergonzi became involved in anti-Fascist activities and was sent to a German prisoner of war camp. After two years he was freed by the Russians and walked 106km (66 miles) to reach an American camp.

On the way he drank unboiled water and contracted typhoid fever. He later recovered, but when he returned to the Arrigo Boito Conservatory after the war he weighed just over 36kg (80lb).

Bergonzi made his professional debut as a baritone in 1948 singing the role of Figaro in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Other baritone parts followed but Bergonzi soon realised the tenor repertoire was more suited to his voice. After retraining he made his debut as a tenor in the title role of Andrea Chenier at the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari in 1951.

The same year he sang at the Coliseum in Rome in a 50th anniversary concert commemorating Verdi’s death. The Italian radio network RAI engaged Bergonzi for a series of broadcasts of the lesser-known Verdi operas.

Carlo Bergonzi and Maria Callas (left) performed together at the Metropolitan Opera
Carlo Bergonzi and Maria Callas (left) performed
together at the Metropolitan Opera
These included I due Foscari, Giovanna d’Arco and Simon Boccanegra.

He made his La Scala debut in 1953 creating the title role in Jacopo Napoli’s opera Mas’Aniello. His London debut came in 1953 and his American debut followed in 1955 in Chicago.

After he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time the following year he received a glowing review from the New York Times.

He continued to sing at the Met for the next 30 years, appearing opposite such famous sopranos as Maria Callas, Victoria de los Angeles and Leontyne Price. He sang in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the Met in 1964 in memory of President John F. Kennedy, under the baton of Georg Solti. His last role at the Met was Rodolofo in Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1988.

Bergonzi’s chief Italian tenor rivals during his career were Franco Corelli and Mario Del Monaco but he outlasted them both, continuing to sing in concerts into the 1990s.

Franco Corelli's was one of Bergonzi's  rivals among Italian operatic tenors
Franco Corelli's was one of Bergonzi's
rivals among Italian operatic tenors
In May 2000 it was announced he was to sing the title role in Verdi’s Otello in a concert in New York. It attracted a great deal of interest and Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti were all in the audience.

Sadly, Bergonzi was unable to finish the performance because his voice had been affected by the air conditioning in his dressing room and a substitute tenor had to sing in his place.

After retiring, Bergonzi mentored many famous tenors and the soprano, Frances Ginsberg, was also one of his pupils.

Bergonzi died 12 days after his 90th birthday in Milan, leaving a widow and two sons. He was laid to rest in the Vidalenzo Cemetery, not far from Polisene Parmense.

He left a legacy of beautiful recordings of individual arias and complete operas, including works by Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni and Ruggero Leoncavallo.

The church of the Beata Vergine di Loreto
The church of the Beata Vergine di Loreto
Travel tip:

The village of Polisene Parmense, where Bergonzi was born, is about 40km (25 miles) northwest of Parma and around 20km (12 miles) south of Cremona. In January 2016 it merged with Zibello to form the new municipality of Polesine Zibello.  The village contains two buildings of interest - the church of the Beata Vergine di Loreto, also known as Madonnina del Po, which was built between 1846 and 1920 to preserve an effigy fresco of Our Lady of Loreto that had been discovered in an ancient shrine, and the nearby Antica Corte Pallavicina, a fortress that dates back to the 13th century.

The entrance to Bergonzi's restaurant in Busseto, I due Foscari
The entrance to Bergonzi's restaurant in Busseto, I due Foscari
Travel tip:

Busseto, where Bergonzi sang as a child, is a town in the province of Parma, about 40km (25 miles) from the city of Parma. Verdi was born in the nearby village of Le Roncole but moved to Busseto in 1824. Bergonzi owned a house there and after his retirement also opened a restaurant and hotel there, I due Foscari, named after the Verdi opera about court intrigue in Venice. At the time of his death, I due Foscari was still being run by his son, Marco.

More reading:

How Italy mourned the loss of Giuseppe Verdi

Why Franco Corelli was called 'the prince of tenors'

Pietro Mascagni - a reputation built on one brilliant opera

Also on this day:

1467: The Battle of Molinella sees artillery used for the first time in warfare

1654: The birth of baroque musician Agostino Steffani

1883: The birth of Alfredo Casella, the musician who revived interest in Vivaldi



11 October 2018

Anita Cerquetti – soprano

Performer with a powerful voice had brief moment in the spotlight

Anita Cerquetti commuted between Naples and Rome to perform on alternate nights
Anita Cerquetti commuted between Naples and Rome
to perform on alternate nights
Anita Cerquetti, the singer whose remarkable voice received widespread praise when she stood in for a temperamental Maria Callas in Rome, died on this day in 2014 in Perugia.

Cerquetti had been singing the title role in Vincenzo Bellinis Norma at Teatro San Carlo in Naples in 1958 when Callas, who had been singing the same part in Rome, walked out after the first act on the opening night.

Despite Callas claiming that her voice was troubling her, the incident, in front of Italian President Giovanni Gronchi, created a major scandal.

Fortunately the performances in Rome and Naples were on alternate days and so for several weeks Cerquetti travelled back and forth between the two opera houses, which were 225km (140 miles) apart. The achievement left her exhausted and three years later she retired from singing and her magnificent voice was heard no more.

Cerquetti was born in Montecosaro near Macerata in the Marche. She studied the violin, but after a music professor heard her singing at a wedding she was persuaded to switch to vocal studies. After just one year she made her debut singing Aida in Spoleto in 1951.

A publicity shot of Anita Cerquetti  taken in the 1950s
A publicity shot of Anita Cerquetti
taken in the 1950s
She sang all over Italy and made her debut at La Scala in 1958 as Abigaille in Nabucco. She also sang on RAI in a variety of roles.  She had sung in the United States at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1955, as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera opposite Jussi Björling, under Tullio Serafin, but returned infrequently.

When she replaced Callas at the Rome Opera House, it meant she had to commute between the two cities for several weeks. It was thought the effort affected her health because shortly afterwards she started withdrawing from stage appearances until she retired completely in 1961 at just 30 years of age.

Cerquetti was due to have made her debut at the Royal Opera House in London in the title role of Aida in July 1958, but withdrew following an appendectomy the month before and was replaced by Leontyne Price, so she was never heard at Covent Garden.

Her final appearance was in a concert in Amsterdam in 1961.

She made two recordings for Decca, including a complete version of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda with Mario Del Monaco, and many of her live performances were recorded and have now been issued on CD.

Cerquetti was married to the baritone Edo Feretti with whom she had one daughter. After her retirement she went to live in Rome. Her husband predeceased her and the soprano died in Perugia from cardiovascular disease at the age of 83.

The hilltop town of Montecosaro in Marche
The hilltop town of Montecosaro in Marche
Travel tip:

Montecosaro, where Anita Cerquetti was born in 1931, is a hilltop town in Marche, about 35km (22 miles) southeast of Ancona and about 15km (9 miles)east of Macerata. Just outside the town is the Abbazia di Santa Maria a Pie’ di Chienti, also known as the Santissima Annunziata. Documents refer to an abbey being there in 936 but the Romanesque stone building that can be seen on the site today was built in 1125.

The Teatro San Carlo is close to the centre of  Naples, near Piazza Plebiscito
The Teatro San Carlo is close to the centre of
Naples, near Piazza Plebiscito
Travel tip:

Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, where Cerquetti was singing when she got the call asking her to replace Callas, is in Via San Carlo close to Piazza Plebiscito, the main square in Naples. The theatre was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano for the Bourbon King of Naples, Charles I, and opened in 1737, some 41 years before La Scala and 55 years before La Fenice. San Carlo is now believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, remaining opera houses in the world. Both Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini served as artistic directors at San Carlo and the world premieres of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Mosè were performed there.

More reading:

The mezzo-soprano at the centre of an on-stage spat with Maria Callas

The short but eventful career of Norma composer Vincenzo Bellini

When fire engulfed the Teatro San Carlo

Also on this day:

1815: The birth of controversial Prince Pierre-Napoleon Bonaparte

1896: The birth of Neapolitan songwriter Cesare Andrea Bixio


27 April 2017

Popes John XXIII and John Paul II made saints

Crowd of 800,000 in St Peter's Square for joint canonisation

The Basilica of St Peter, in readiness for the joint-canonisation of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014
The Basilica of St Peter, in readiness for the joint-canonisation
of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in 2014
Pope Francis declared Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II as saints at a ceremony during Mass in Rome’s St Peter’s Square on this day in 2014.

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world converged on the Vatican to attend the ceremony, which celebrated two popes recognised as giants of the Catholic Church in the 20th century.

There was scarcely room to move in St Peter's Square, the Via della Conciliazione and the adjoining streets.  The crowd, probably the biggest since John Paul II’s beatification three years earlier, was estimated at around 800,000, of which by far the largest contingent had made the pilgrimage from John Paul’s native Poland to see their most famous compatriot become a saint.  Thousands of red and white Polish flags filled the square.

In his homily, Pope Francis said Saints John XXIII and JohnPaul II were “priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century. They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them God was more powerful, faith was more powerful”.

He added that the two popes had “co-operated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating” the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis delivers his homily to the crowd in the square
Pope Francis delivers his homily to the crowd in the square
Among those attending this morning’s Mass was Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, who in 2013 had become the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Among the foreign dignitaries present, which included 19 heads of state and 25 heads of government, was the former Polish president, Lech Walesa, who had been a key figure in the fall of communism as leader of the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, Solidarity.

Italy was represented by the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, the president, Giorgio Napolitano, and his wife, first lady Clio Maria Bittoni.

Other world leaders present included Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia, the French prime minister Manuel Valls, and the controversial Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe.

St Peter’s Basilica was opened to allow pilgrims visit the tombs of both new saints, which rest in crypts inside the building.

Both John XXIII, who was in office from 1958 to 1963 and called the modernising Second Vatican Council, and John Paul II, who reigned for nearly 27 years, played leading roles on the world stage.

Every space in St Peter's Square was taken
Every space in St Peter's Square was taken
John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli in Sotto il Monte, near Bergamo, in 1881, was known as the “Good Pope” because of his friendly, open personality. He died before the Second Vatican Council ended its work in 1965 but his initiative had set off a significant upheaval in church teaching, ending the use of Latin at Mass, introducing modern music and opening the way for challenges to Vatican authority.

John Paul, born Karol Józef Wojtyła in Wadowice in 1920, was widely credited with helping to bring down communist rule in eastern Europe and hastening the end of the Cold War.

As pope he continued with reform but tightened central control, condemned theological renegades and preached a strict line on social issues such as sexual freedom. Although a charismatic character, he was criticised by some for being too conservative.

Pope John Paul II was idolised by many Catholics
Pope John Paul II was idolised by many Catholics
However, he was able to inspire adoration from many Catholics, as was witnessed when the crowd at his funeral in 2005 joined in a spontaneous chant of “santo subito”, urging that he be made a saint immediately. Although that did not happen, he was honoured with the fastest declaration of sainthood in modern history.

Among those less enamoured with his canonisation were a group who claimed to have been the victims of sexual abuse by priests, who felt John Paul II did not do enough to tackle the problem, particularly with regard to the controversial Mexican founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, whom John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, removed from active ministry soon after beginning his papacy.  The group staged a rooftop vigil nearby.

Both canonisations had involved adaptation of the strict rules governing declaration of a saint, which normally involve the attestation of at least two miracles.

In the case of John Paul II, Benedict XVI had waived the customary five-year waiting period before the preliminaries to sainthood can begin, while Francis ruled that only one miracle was needed to declare John a saint.

The Via della Conciliazione at night
The Via della Conciliazione at night
Travel tip:

The Via della Conciliazione, in the rione (district) of Borgo, is the street that connects St Peter's Square to Castel Sant'Angelo on the western bank of the Tiber river. Bordered by shops, historical and religious buildings including the churches of Santa Maria in Traspontina and Santo Spirito in Sassia, it was built between 1936 and 1950 to fulfil Mussolini’s vision of a grand thoroughfare into the square but attracted much controversy because of the destruction of an area known as the ‘spina’ – spine – of Borgo and the forced displacement of hundreds of residents to locations on the outskirts of the city.

The village of Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXXIII
The village of Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXXIII
Travel tip:

Now renamed Sotto il Monte Giovanni XXIII, Pope John’s birthplace was originally a small farming community to the west of Bergamo. It has seen much change as a result of Angelo Roncalli’s elevation to the papacy and subsequent sainthood, attracting many tourists. The house where he was born is in the hamlet of Brusicco and the summer residence at Camaitino that he used when he was a cardinal is now a history museum dedicated to him.  Also worth visiting nearby, on the slopes of Monte Canto, is the Romanesque Fontanella Abbey, dating back to the 11th century.

More reading:

How Karol Wojytla became the first non-Italian pope for 455 years

The farmer's son who went on to become the 'good pope'

The consecration of St Peter's Basilica

Also on this day:

4 February 2017

Eugenio Corti - soldier and writer

Author drew on his experiences on the front line

Eugenio Corti
Eugenio Corti
Eugenio Corti, the writer most famous for his epic 1983 novel The Red Horse, died on this day in 2014 at the age of 93.

He passed away at his home in Besana in Brianza in Lombardy, where he had been born in January 1921.

The Red Horse, which follows the life of the Riva family in northern Italy from Mussolini's declaration of war in the summer of 1940 through to the 1970s, covers the years of the Second World War and the evolution of Italy's new republic.

Its themes reflect Corti's own view of the world, his unease about the totalitarianism of fascism and communism, his faith in the Christian Democrats to tread a confident path through the conservative middle ground, and his regret at the decline in Christian values in Italy.

It has been likened to Alessandro Manzoni's novel I promessi sposi - The Betrothed - for its strong moral tone and for the way that Corti employs the technique favoured by Manzoni of setting fictional characters in the novel against a backcloth of actual history, with real people and events written into the plot.

Italian soldiers were exposed to horrendous conditions and extreme weather on the Russian Front
Italian soldiers were exposed to horrendous conditions
and extreme weather on the Russian Front
The Red Horse, which took Corti more than a decade to write, became a literary phenomenon in Italy, selling so many copies it needed to be reprinted 25 times.   It was voted the best book of the 1980s in a survey in Italy and has been translated into six languages, including Japanese.  Corti was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature

Corti, who enjoyed success also with Few Returned and The Last Soldiers of the King, based much of his work on his experiences fighting in Mussolini's army on the Russian Front and later as a member of the Italian Freedom Fighters, fighting alongside the Allies against the Nazis.

His philosophy was shaped by his family background, which had deep Catholic roots.  His paternal grandmother, Josephine Ratti, was the cousin of Achille Ratti, who became Pope Pius XI.  The family had a strong belief in doing charitable Christian work. Among his nine brothers was a missionary in Uganda and a priest in Chad.  There was also a powerful work ethic, typified by his father, Mario, who left school at 13 yet built up a textile business that at one time employed 1,200 people in five factories.

It was while studying classics at the Collegio San Carlo in Milan that Eugenio decided he could best express his beliefs through writing but his life changed after he was called up for compulsory military service in 1941. Appointed a Lieutenant of Artillery, he was allowed to decide where he wanted to serve.  He chose the Russian Front because he wanted to "understand the communist world."

Within a few months of his arrival at the front in June 1942, Mussolini's army was in retreat.  In fact, Corti was one of only a handful to escape as a 30,000-strong Italian force was encircled, finding his way back to Italy despite harsh winter weather conditions. He survived a phase of the conflict in which 115,000 Italian soldiers died.

On his return to barracks in Bolzano he refused the offer of discharge on medical grounds and was posted to Nettuno, south of Rome.  When Mussolini was arrested by King Victor Emmanuel III and an armistice signed with the Allies, Corti joined the Italian Freedom Fighters to fight against the Nazis.

The experiences exposed him to the full horrors of war and shaped his writing. He produced his first two books - I più non ritornato (published in English as Few Returned) and I poveri cristi (The Poor Bastards) - which were essentially diaries of his own experiences, soon after the war was over.

At the same time he studied law at the Catholic Università del Sacro Cuore in Milan, where he met his wife, Vanda, whom he married at Assisi in 1951.  For the next decade he worked in the family business, helping steer it through the post-War industrial crisis, returning to writing with a play, Trial and Death of Stalin, in 1962.

Eugenio Corti was interviewed for  a television documentary in 2010
Eugenio Corti was interviewed for
a television documentary in 2010
He began to write full time in the early 1970s, his epic The Red Horse consuming him for a decade until publication in 1983.  His subsequent novel The Last Soldiers of the King was based on his experiences fighting against the Nazis for Victor Emmanuel III, who abdicated in 1946 shortly before the Italian people voted to scrap the monarchy.

Apart from his novels, Corti was noted for his essays on the Vatican, the Christian Democrat party and on the development of western civilization.  He continued to write well into his eighties.

Awarded a Silver Medal for Valour in recognition of his bravery and leadership on the battlefield, he was honoured by the Lombardy Region and the Province of Milan for his contributions to civilian life and industry and by the Italian state with a Gold Medal for Culture and Art before, in 1999, he was awarded the Knight Order of Merit of the Italian Republic by President Francesco Cossiga.

Travel tip:

The Brianza area of Lombardy, in which Eugenio Corti grew up, used to be covered with dense forests, much of which have disappeared with the industrialisation of northern Italy. One area that escaped extensive development, just to the east of Besana in Brianza, has been preserved as the Montevecchia Regional Park, a small gem near the city of Milan where visitors can enjoy verdant green spaces and wooded areas rich in flora. The crest of the hill of Montevecchia , where the forests of the Curone Valley and the Santa Croce Valley meet, represents the green heart of the park.

Nettuno beach, with the Sangallo Fortress in the foreground
Nettuno beach, with the Sangallo Fortress in the foreground
Travel tip:

Nettuno and neighbouring Anzio tend to be best remembered as the point chosen by Allied forces as a landing point during the invasion of the Italian peninsula early in 1944, mainly due to the area's long stretches of beach. Many lives were lost in the battle that took place and both towns suffered heavy damage. Nonetheless, there is still much to see at Nettuno, including the ruins of a Roman port and the walled Sangallo Fortress built in 1503 by Antonio da Sangallo on behalf of Cesare Borgia, which sits next to the beach.  The Sanctuary of Nostra Signora delle Grazie e Santa Maria Goretti houses a wooden statue of Our Lady of Grace said to have been recovered in England in the 16th century after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Catholic monasteries, when many religious statues were confiscated or desecrated.

More reading:

Mussolini's last stand

Victor Emmanuel III abdicates

How Russians liberated Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi

Also on this day: