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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Franco Bonisolli: Opera's Wild Man

I should start by saying that I respect the voice, the talent, and the raw energy that was Franco Bonisolli. He was a great tenor, whose eccentric behavior ultimately undercut his career and his reputation. There are elements of tragedy here, because the talent was very great, and it is that man that I wish to celebrate, not the one cruelly called "il pazzo," a nickname that unfortunately stuck.

Franco Bonisolli was born in Rovereto in 1937, and began his career at the Spoleto Festival in 1961, in Puccini's La Rondine. He sang in unusual and seldom performed operas for several years, but by so doing began his inevitable climb through the web of Italian houses until, 8 years later, in 1969, he was ready for a La Scala debut, performing in Rigoletto, L'Elisir d'Amore, and La Bohème. After La Scala, the rise was rapid. He was a handsome young man, with a spectacular voice, brilliant at the top, all the way to a high D natural. He had everything he needed for a wonderful career. He went on to sing in San Francisco, New York, Vienna, and the career quickly went world-wide.

He developed early-on the maturity required to sing the big roles, and parts such as Andrea Chenier, Calaf, and—especially—Manrico became audience favorites. Here he is in the famous "Nessun Dorma," from Turandot, a live performance from 1987, in Covent Garden:

This is beautiful and powerful singing, and the strength of the upper register is in ample evidence. This is the kind of singing and performing that won Bonisolli his international reputation. The quality of the voice is ringing and virile and absolutely consistent up and down the scale. He is an attractive man and looks very good on stage. At the beginning, he sometimes tended to under-act, rather in the tradition of the older "stand there and sing" stars, such as Zinka Milanov, who once famously asked "what good is acting if you can't sing?"

Here is another clip from 1984, a live performance on TV. This is possibly the best Bonisolli video on Youtube, and shows the tenor in full command of his great abilities, confident and in spectacular voice:

This is impossible to fault in any way! I have seldom heard this famous aria sung better. And the high notes! The high C is spectacular. Notes that high just don't get any better than this. It was this spectacular higher register that was responsible for much of Bonisolli's reputation. This is no squeezed-out high C, there is plenty of heft in that sound, and it rings like a bell. One thinks of the great Franco Corelli, one of the few spinto tenors with whom Bonisolli can be compared. He voice extended even higher. Here is a short cabaletta from Rigoletto, recorded in 1969 (early in the international career) with a high D natural at the end. The lip-synch is not very good, but he is in good voice at least, and you can see that he was a very handsome man at that time.

This is rarified singing; there is not a great deal of competition at this level.

And now, I feel that I must post the following video, if I am going to make an honest evaluation. It shows the sad degeneration toward the latter part of the career. Bonisolli's behavior had become so erratic that he was unreliable in performance and very hard to work with. This video, made at an annual Gigli memorial festival, shows him singing his signature piece, "Di Quella Pira," with a very large orchestra in front of a huge audience. He sings the piece, and basically refuses to leave the stage, infuriating the conductor. The audience gets into the game (opera can still be blood sport in Italy!) until the conductor has no choice but to play it over again. After the second rendition, watch the end of the video carefully, and you will see Bonisolli hopping, skipping and leaping off stage. A sorry spectacle, to be sure. But, to be honest, this was the problem. Great talent and intolerable antics. I suppose some think it funny. I can't, because we are witnessing a great talent deconstructing itself in front of our eyes. Sorry....maybe I should laugh, but I can't:

And there you have it. I have heard, but cannot prove, that toward the end of his life (he only lived to be 66) there were very serious health problems that were possibly neurological in nature. It may well be that that was the problem. If so, then his having had a major career was more of a triumph over illness than a failure of personality. That is certainly what I would like to think.


JD Hobbes said...

Sad but true. As the old saying goes, "Time and chance happeneth to them all." How many great persons have been destroyed by some quirk or accident or type of destructive behavior? He certainly had the gift.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You put it very well, my friend. Very well indeed.

LWS said...

How very sad. The Che Gelida Manina gave me a lump in my throat, absolutely faultless and sung with such feeling and beauty. The Di Quella Pira left me a bit cold though, it felt like he belted it out with little emotion. A perfect illustration of a sad end to a great talent and a huge voice. They don't make 'em like Franco any more.

As always, thank you for your insightful analysis and selection of videos.

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure, my friend, and yes, it is a sad story indeed. Thanks for your comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article; it’s revealing. I watched Bonisolli’s Di quella pira (the last video) long time ago and it was just sad – a good singer gone half mad. He didn’t interest me . I had a doubt about his madness though, because it’s hard to imagine that one can become a fine operatic tenor, being insane at the same time; the discipline is too demanding. Now I see that he had been a really great singer, who fell ill after several years of his career. Yes, his disease probably was neurological, because he looked very athletic, physically very healthy. Besides, such an early death is not typical for opera singers at all. When he sang Che Gelida Manina to the end there was a smile on his face, as if he said “I won!” It’s typical for people who consider their profession the main thing in their life, and maybe he also was too sensitive to all the “show business’ things: his reputation, fame, competition with other tenors.
His early performances are perfect , very expressive, skillful and musically fine.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for your sensitive and perceptive comment. As always, it is very much appreciated.

Paddy said...

I am so happy to read your serious and sensitive comments about this great tenor. I have been besotted with this great voice since I first heard it on record.
It is obvious that that he had a secure technique else he could not have sung the variety of roles he undertook, right to the end. The voice remained in great condition as evidenced by his Che Gelida in Graz under Karl Sollak when he was almost 62.
The Opern Gala set with Mirella Freni is matchless. I compare the tracks with those of the so called 3 Tenors and others and he scores every time. On Donna non Vidi Mai for example only Bjorling and Bergonzi come near.
Andreas Baum who was responsible for the above set and was a close friend stated that he died from a malignant tumour. A relative of mine who is a recently retired Surgeon explained to me that some brain tumours in the early stages can go undetected for quite a time and yet cause irrational behaviour, always with some agression.
Somehow I suspect that he can't have been that bad. April Millo who made her Italian debut in Aida in 1989 and was partnered by Franco lists him as one of her heroes on her web site. No wonder! The Nile duet is awesome, and he effects a diminuendo on the Bflats effortlessly at 51 years old.
Surely he was not the only singer who was difficult. I read that Bjorling could be difficult.Has everyone forgotten the antics of Callas? If one is genuinely interested in the performance, is not that the key? not the Personality. For me he was the greatest-warts and all.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much! I REALLY appreciate those comments, because your perception of this man and his talent make a great deal of sense to me. I feel the same way. This talent was enormous, and his erratic behavior from time to time was often amusing. Conductors may not have thought so, but watching the audience get on the bandwagon and urge him on in the Gigli Memorial Gala is illustrative. That kind of thing finds a friendlier audience in Italy, perhaps, than anywhere else. And as far as "difficult" is concerned, nobody but nobody could match Giacomo Lauri Volpi, easily one of the greatest tenors of all time, but arrogant and dismissive of others in ways seldom seen since the Renaissance. So yes, I agree with you 100%, and the information on the tumor also tends to confirm a suspicion I have always had, based only on what people have told me. Thanks again for your excellent comments!

Anonymous said...

You still have to admit that the "sword incident" with Karajan would give a hell of a comical sketch.
In my opinion, one of the greatest ever. There was nothing he couldn't do: Belcanto, Lyric, Dramatic/Heroic and even buff roles he would deliver them perfectly. At leas he was a tenor with personality and charisma, since you can immediatly identify his voice. It was Franco's way or no way.
His main problem was not knowing his limits, always trying to deliver high notes even when he was tired or just in a bad night, he just couldn't help it. The result was a several list of cracks, but at least he always had the courage to stop the opera, tell the conductor to go back and finally delivering the note.
One of a kind!

Edmund St. Austell said...

One of a kind indeed! You nailed it! Thanks for a very interesting comment!

Anonymous said...

Here is a fantastic example of both his fantastic voice and his unique personality. Not recommended for purists:

Does it mather that he makes his own interpretation? It really brings that tear in the eye, and the public whio was attending seems to agree with me.

Edmund St. Austell said...

You make a good point, and that is that the public tended to adore him. He was an extraordinary tenor, no doubt about it. His eccentricities are easily forgiven, because he had the voice and the temperament of a great singer.

Anonymous said...

Surely you understand that in the culture of opera in Italy opera stars are revered for their temperament as well as voice and Italian opera fans absolutely adore misbehaving, undisciplined tenors who hang on to high notes as long as possible, and, accordingly, the nickname "Il Pazzo" was not "cruelly called" or "a nickname that unfortunately stuck". It was one of clear affection and tribute and a loving compliment to Franco. Just note how wildly the audience reacts to Franco at the Gigli Concert! They loved him and gave him that name in appreciation not in any way in cruelty. Now if, in Germany, he had been called "Der Verrueckte" (this program does not permit the use of the umlated letters!) that would be insulting since the Germans are not so free-wheeling as the Italians. Try disobeying traffic laws in Germany and all bystanders will cry "shame" but drive up on the sidewalk in Italy to pass a line of cars and the pedestrians will shout "Bravo" and wave approval. I know Franco cherished the name and thought it was appropriate and a sign of affection that his worshipful Italian fans adopted it.

Edmund StAustell said...

Yes, I can certainly understand that, and I even feel it myself. If it was indeed the fans who are wholly responsible for the nickname, then I absolutely understand you, and see that you are right. I suppose the problem is that I had always thought that it was largely the press who nailed him with the name. I have spent my life in the Hispanic academic world, and I know only too well the power of the deadly nickname, or tag. I knew one young professor, very unpopular, who had a very mis-shapen head. A friend of mine, a professor from Argentina, said "in Argentina, we would completely destroy him with a two words---"el feto." [The fetus] To this day that's all I can see when I think of that poor unfortunate. So you see where I was coming from. I would be very glad to be proven wrong about "il pazzo."

RAB said...

I too have long been a fan of this great singer. Being half Italian on my mother's side, I grew up listening to Mario Lanza and I think these two great tenors had a lot in common, both in terms of talent and temperament. On my visits to my Italian family, I always asked who was the Italians' favourite tenor. Most replied Bonisolli, which was interesting given Pavarotti's general fame and reputation at the time. Amongst the recordings I have of FB are the Cavalleria Rusticana made in 1981 with Martina Arroyo and of course the legendary Traviata film with the sublime Anna Moffo. Despite the 14 year difference between these two, the voice still sounded fresh, ardent and exciting. If I have a gripe about most of today's singers it is that they don't appear to want to take any risks and that robs their performance of excitement. It's all control and no freedom. Signor Bonisolli (and Anna Moffo) managed to balance control in their singing with freedom and that for me distinguishes a great singer from simply a good one. Finally, to your point about the nature of the illness that killed him, it is surprising that there is so little medical information available about this which might illuminate the subject.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for a most interesting comment, which helps illuminate Bonisolli, as seen from the Italian point of view. I really appreciate it.

Kandinsky said...

A treat:

Anonymous said...

i have read he died of brain tumor.
this explain his behavior perfectly. this disease is many times missed by physicians saying the patient is mad. it looks like the case here.
very sad. great tenor. rip.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much for that information.

Anonymous said...

I am a professional tenor.

I have sung many, many roles in my career, and of course, I have heard many fine tenors in my travels.

I only heard Mr. Bonisolli once, and that was at the Gwyneth Jones 1987 Turandot at Covent Garden.

Of course, I was especially listening to Mr. Bonisolli's work, and with a critical ear.

I was absolutely astonished at the ease of his top, and his command of the stage. He remains, in my mind, as the greatest tenor I have ever heard live, and by a wide margin.

I fail to understand how this individual has not been celebrated more for his gift and his work.

If he was mad, then I would wish for a portion of the disease that allowed him to perform at such a level.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you for an excellent comment that I really appreciate. I have never been able to determine, to my own satisfaction, what the story was with Bonisolli. Like you, I consider him a great tenor, with an incredible voice. I feel, from those to whom I have spoken, that there was a nervous disease involved there, but one which neither he nor his family cared to talk about. Whatever the situation, it was sad that it detracted from his career, because the simple fact is that he was a great tenor.

Anonymous said...

I just came across your thoughtful article about Franco Bonisolli and wanted to offer my thanks for it. For all his antics and reputation for being difficult to work with, he deserves to be remembered among the greats. I agree that his artistry, when he chose to practice it, was better than he was given credit for. For me, though, he will always be among my favorites for a simple reason: he possessed the most magnificent vocal instrument of any dramatic tenor I've heard in my lifetime. I always forgave his eccentricities for the sheer joy of hearing that extraordinary sound, and always will. Thank you again for the article.

Edmund St. Austell said...

My pleasure, my friend! Thank you for a lovely comment! I agree with all you say!