I received an email early last week from Mr. Paolo Bernardi, who sent me some links to videos of his father, Giuliano Bernardi, a brilliant singer. He told me the story of his father’s short and tragic life, which I relay to you in its essence, and in Paolo’s own words, slightly edited:
“Thanks, Edmund, for your kind words. I’m glad you appreciated my father’s voice. As you can see, I posted both baritone and tenor arias because my father, after graduation from the Conservatory of Pesaro, made his debut in 1968 [as a baritone] in the role of Rigoletto, in Mantova. He sang baritone in the most important Italian theaters, in operas such as Un Ballo in Maschera, I Pagliacci, La Boheme, La Traviata, [and] Rigoletto, always with great success, until the end of 1973, when he decided to become a dramatic tenor, [owing to the fact that] some people—and in particular his friend Pavarotti—had advised him to change because the potential as tenor was really high. With the help of Maestro Pola he made his debut as a tenor in 1975, in Macbeth. After that, he sang only two operas in Italy and Spain—Il Trovatore and La Traviata. He was preparing Otello for a performance in Spain, and was getting ready for his American debut [Chicago in 1977, and the Met in 1978/79] when an automobile accident ended his career and his life at age 37.”
This is a very sad story indeed, as I am sure you will agree when you hear this extraordinary but ill-fated singer. First as a baritone:
I honestly believe that this is one of the most beautiful renditions of Di Provenza that I have ever heard. The phrasing, the musicianship, the brilliant top—the presentation in general—is just wonderful. [Yes, I know…arms and gestures, but he is young here. In time, and in America especially, he would have learned what to do with his arms in a concert.) And witness the reaction of the audience. They are well aware of the quality of what they have just heard. Whether Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or French, you cannot fool the Latins when it comes to opera. It’s their music, ultimately, and they only applaud what they know is good. [And God help you if it isn’t!]
Several years later, Bernardi had studied tenor singing, and I offer this example:
I also listened to the Di Quella Pira, which, if the recording is running at the right speed, was sung down one half tone. It was very, very good. I cannot tell from a few clips, but I assume that he was a B natural tenor. There is nothing wrong with that; many tenors take Di Quella Pira down a half tone, as they do the Boheme aria and also the Faust aria. Now the big question: was Mr. Bernardi a true tenor, or a true baritone, or both? The few arias posted show him as brilliant in all the pieces he sings. At least two of the comments by viewers suggest that he was a TRUE lyric baritone—that he sang the way a baritone should sing. Of course, Pavarotti’s advice was also true—there is more economic potential as a dramatic tenor. I do not pretend to have an answer based on a few examples. I suppose the question I would ask would be whether it is better—and potentially healthier—to be a baritone with a high top or a dramatic tenor with a reliable top of Bb or B. I think it is important to remember that Mr. Bernardi was just 37 at the time of his death. Could he have sustained that top through his forties and into his fifties? I must admit I am not 100% sure that he could. Perhaps he could, but singing the big heavy tenor roles (Calaf, Otello, Chenier, Don Alvaro, Rhadames) can take a brutal toll on a tenor voice over time. And there was of course some mighty competition at the time, largely in the person of Giuseppe Giacomini and Plácido Domingo. Given the tendency of the voice to darken over time, a lyric baritone with a high top has a greater longevity potential than a dramatic tenor putting ever more stress on an already slightly short top.
This is of course all a moot point in this case. What the future might have been is a guessing game. As it is, it can only be said with certainty that here was brilliance and tragedy.
Thank you, Paolo, for sharing this story with us.