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.
at 4:33 PM