Sunday, May 22, 2011
Alessandro Bonci: A Bel Canto Master
Bonci's debut was in Parma in 1896, as Fenton in Falstaff. By he end of his first professional year, he had already been engaged by La Scala, where he debuted in I Puritani, an opera with which he quickly became identified. His rise was near meteoric. He went on very quickly to the major houses of Europe, including Covent Garden in 1900. His American debut was with the Manhattan Opera Company, where he found himself in a kind of direct competition with Enrico Caruso, who was singing at the Met. He went on to enjoy a major career in all the important houses, both here and abroad, until he retired in 1925, at the age of 55, dedicating himself to teaching and concertizing.
Without question, Bonci was an elegant and well schooled bel canto tenor. His early career was in the 19th century, and his singing exemplified the tastes of that period. As mentioned, he was particularly identified with the bel canto repertoire, especially the works of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Here is the great tenor aria "A te, o cara, " from Bellini's I Puritani:
An absolutely elegant and lovely example of bel canto tenor singing! The purity of the voice, the stylistic finesse, the easy top—where he picks a high C right out of the air, on a diminished tone, and pulls it out in a long crescendo! Not many tenors can do that! Everything about this rendition has authenticity stamped upon it. There is no doubt in my mind that Bellini would have been very pleased, and would have been likely to say "Yes! That is exactly what I had in mind."
There is a most interesting video on Youtube that has an old piece of video footage; a short conversation by some New York Italian-Americans, in a Mr. Luigi Rossi's grocery store, talking at one point about Bonci, and how he compared—in their minds, at least—with Caruso. This speaks tomes about bel canto versus verismo in the "popular" mind. The conversation begins at 2:40 on the following video; it should be possible, if you have a fairly fast download, to move the radio button forward to that point:
Isn't that interesting? The audience for opera is clearly changing, and the refinements of the previous century are not much appreciated by these gentlemen, obviously, compared to the more "real" and down-to-earth presentation by Caruso. Granted, Caruso was a very great tenor, and enthusiasm for him is entirely understandable, but the important thing here is that to these men, Bonci seems to sound effete. Never mind that he was portraying the Duke of Mantua, a foppish nobleman of the Renaissance. Those considerations seem not to be important to them. In other words, opera is becoming a purely vocal art.
It would be interesting to put these observations to the test. It so happens that Bonci recorded "La Donna è Mobile":
Bellini in Verdi-land? Perhaps. In any case, it is an unusual opportunity to see and reflect upon the passing of bel canto in favor of verismo. The Caruso recording is easily found, and can be compared. Probably most know it. It is very much more declamatory (and loud) and the famous cadenza at the end is included, including the roof-raising B natural. It is not really possible—or prudent—to pronounce on the superiority or inferiority of one versus the other. They are just two different worlds. They don't blend, and one has very little to say to the other. Apples and oranges.
In any case, we should not judge Bonci by the standards of verismo any more than we should judge Caruso by the standards of bel canto. Here, finally, is Bonci in a piece that is absolutely appropriate, squarely in the bel canto repertoire, "Spirto gentil," from Donizetti's La Favorita:
A lovely and elegant rendition of a beautiful piece of music! There is so much about 19th century opera and its fashions that was right. I for one think it is well worth preserving. Bel canto is certainly not dead...it is still there, and we can name a long list of singers who adhere even today to its essential principles. The sensible thing to say, I suppose, is let's have both. There is plenty of room. Let's just not swamp the repertoire of one with singers who clearly belong to the other. That would solve a myriad of problems!
at 10:27 AM