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Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Story of Giuliano Bernardi: Brilliance And Tragedy

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 Pl├ícido 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.


corax said...

another thoughtful and thought-provoking post. i've been meaning to ask you for years, and now is as good a time as any: is there really such a concept, in the biz, as 'baritenor'? or was that just a nonce term a friend of mine coined long ago?

if the answer to my first question is 'yes,' can you tell us more about this category, and what it entails -- how it differs both from the lyric baritone and from the dramatic tenor?

and then, also if yes, here's yet another, directly germane to this case: was bernardi a baritenor?

i have plenty of other questions/observations about all this, ma basta cosi' -- for the moment.

Edmund said...

Thank you, my faithful correspondent. As usual, your questions are penetrating and go right to the core of the matter. Short answer: no, I don't there is a baritenor. There is a mezzo-soprano, but I think we are basically awash in a sea of imprecise terminology. Essentially, there are high voices, middle register voices, and low voices. When we get into the basso profundo/bass/bass-baritone/lyric baritone/dramatic tenor/spinto tenor/lyric tenor/tenore di gracia/tenore leggiero, we are simply overdoing it. Bernardi's voice is sui generis: it's the same voice, same quality, in both recordings, as nearly as I can discern sound. The big difference is about two notes: Bb and B natural. Good lyric baritones often have a good Ab or A natural; viz., Pagliacci: "Amdiam' incominciamo!" There are many examples. It's only one tone from A to B, and a reliable B is enough to sing almost all Verdi and Puccini tenor roles. In my modest judgment, Bernardi was an excellent lyric baritone.

JD Hobbes said...

I would agree with the lyric baritone classification. A sensational baritone is one thing. For him to stretch to tenor and compete with "senational tenors" is another. Andrea Bocelli has a very nice voice and excels at classi-pop or crossover kinds of music. He also has a fairly broad range from high to low. But to try to be a full-fledged operatic tenor is beyond him. Knowing one's niche is a good thing.

Edmund said...

Good observation. If one can sing baritone that beautifully, with that high a top, then age holds no fears. If one starts pushing to try to conquer the big tenor roles, anything can happen. Witness Giacomini. He developed a vibrato so broad after while that it became a wobble. Carreras blew the whole upper third of his voice; he was barely making the Bb toward the end. Del Monaco was out and out screaming toward the end, and trying to record baritone arias, such as Largo al Factotum, which were terrible. Only Domingo has held up well to the astonishing age of 70 or thereabouts. Very dangerous territory.

Jing said...

What a gift to hear this voice, totally new to me! And what a poignant, tragic story. I totally agree with your observations on his "Di Provenza.." It is amazing how lyrical so much of the music Verdi wrote for baritones is, and how so many of the famous ones are determined to blast away full-bore. And Verdi is so able to infuse the character's (Germont's) emotional complications and ambiguities into this aria. (Think what he is really asking his son to do to Violetta - and in all sincerity.)Lovely, lovely rendition.

I just listened to Bernardi singing "Di Quella Pira" on YouTube. As the aria ended, I kept humming his final note and ran downstairs to the piano. It sure sounded like a high C to me. I ran back up and repeated the exercise - "Alarmiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!" Downstairs again. Still sounds like a C. Is my piano that far out of tune? Could be, but I don't think so, Anyway, what a tremendous singer.

Finally, I wonder if, with work, upper registers can be created and sustained by brute force of will. I have always thought of Domingo in this regard (who himself began singing as a tenor). A critic once referred to him simply as a "phenomenon" and I wonder if that captures some of the sheer intensity of determination behind the voice. Thanks again Edmund.

Edmund said...

Thank you my friend. You are certainly right about Verdi and his baritones. A baritone was never intended to be a bass. When one thinks of his big bass arias, such O tu, Palermo...., or Credo in un dio crudel," they are of an entirely different nature. Even fairly meaty arias, such as Eri tu che macchiavi nell'anima or Pari siamo--I'ho la lingua, egli ha il pugnale! are still singable, and apparently Bernardi excelled in these roles.

As to the brute force of will, I think that is more often the problem than the cure. It's all built on ease and flow. If one has to exercise too much willful force, it's going to start shutting down. And I think you meant to say "Domingo, who himself began singing as a baritone." Yes, true. And it was Rise Stevens, if memory serves, who showed him how to sing high notes. But Domingo is very smart, and a world class musician. He also does not sing beyond his range. He is basically a Bb tenor, but a damned good one!

As to your piano, I think it may have slipped a half tone. Pretty sure that's a B. Get your pitchpipe and check it. I keep one right beside my keyboard for emergency situations, :) :)

Jing said...

Edmund. I will trust your musical emergency equipment, as well as your ear, when it comes to pitch determination. Yes, you're right, I meant to say baritone in the case of the early Domingo...Regarding your thoughts on bass Verdi arias, I have always thought of "Ella giammai m'amo" as a great opportunity for lyrical singing (and such a contrast with the music for the Grand Inquisitor in the same opera, Don Carlo)...Back to Placido, I had the pleasure of hearing Domingo recently in Handel's Tamurlano. I was fully prepared to write him off as unsuited for baroque singing. He was really good. Perhaps genuine purists would find some fault here and there, but he sang beautifully and made the role (Bezajet) his own. He really is a phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Edmund for this beautiful comment of the artistry of my father. I think he deserve to be better known because unfortunately he died too young and long time ago.
About his voice i think he felt a real tenor and this was the reason because he decided to change his tessitura. Even if he had always great success as baritone he wanted to be a tenor and the advices he received from other colleague at first his friend Pavarotti motivated him to try. I think the process was not completly ended as tenor but the potential was probably even higher than as baritone.
I suppose he could be the best OTello after the great MDM..he was preparing this difficult opera and he had to perform in Spain few months later the car accident.
Another opera he could be great could be Pagliacci and Aida too.
Thanks again
Paolo Bernardi

Edmund said...

Thank you once again, Paolo, for giving me the opportunity to tell your father's story to my readers. You are doing a noble thing by telling his story to opera lovers, and using the vast resources of Youtube to give him a chance to be heard by many people. He was a very talented man and deserves the wider audience you are helping to provide for him. Edmund.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article; I didn’t know about this singer before. I can’t say anything about his technique or “baritenors”. The only criterion I have is subjective: beauty of the voice and expressiveness. He is an excellent singer, to my taste; his voice sounds beautifully as a tenor and a baritone. It is very sad that he died at such an early age.

Edmund said...

He was new to me also. His son is making a fine gesture by letting people know about him. To be so close to univeral recognition, and lose it all in an accident is awfully sad. Yes, I agree with you exactly: the smooth beauty of the voice is what first struck me, along with an almost urgent expressivelness. I don't think I have ever heard "Di Provenza il mar..." sung better.

Martin Cooke said...

Thanks to Paolo Bernardi I have found your excellent and informative blog.

Here is a link to my webpage about my teacher the noted international Australian tenor Ken Neate (1914-1997).

Ken Nessun Dorma



Martin Cooke

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed! I appreciate your comment, and the sites you have provided. Be assured I will watch them all, and I urge my followers to do the same! Again, thanks. Edmund

Unknown said...

Thank you for your informative post! I am surprised not to find anything about Mr. De Bernardis upbringing. Is he from a family with other singers?Because I try to verify the birth and death of a certain Giuseppe de Bernardi, baritone at La Fenice in Venice, Italy in the year 1910 and i imagine this might be a lead. Thank you for any assistance in my task!

Edmund St. Austell said...

I suggest you contact his son, Paolo Bernardi, at 69brancaleone

Unknown said...

Thank you, i will!

Avvocato Orsini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edmund St. Austell said...

You make your points well, and you illustrate them with solid examples. Perhaps you are certainly know what you are talking one could deny that. Therefore, let me think a bit on the matter of the baritenor. I need to ponder it a while. Thank you for your erudite comments.

Avvocato Orsini said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gioacchino Fiurezi-Maragioglio said...

Ah, Edmund, thank you for this article. I have much to share on this issue!

First, the stamina: I think that if Arrigo Pola had taught him, he would have a long and successful career as a tenor, because Arrigo Pola had a excellent understanding of vocal tenorial art.

From thoses videi, it is clear that he sings as a tenor should.

Second: transitioning the fach. Unlike the bass voice, tenor and baritone are not very different, it is only the tessitura and the technique that matters.

There are big problems if a baritone transitions to tenor without retraining, or even if the tenor is trained initially as a baritone. For the example, Bruno Prevedi and Carlo Bergonzi.

Prevedi never took vocal tenor lessons, and so he was always afraid of loosing his voice, and he sang the same as he did as a baritone: with a huge column of sound that was always flat above the staff.

Similar, Bergonzi was diagnosed as a baritone by the great teacher Ettore Campogalliano, the teacher of the correct Italian head-voiced technique of the gathered voice. He gave Bergonzi a perfect baritone technique. When Bergonzi decided he was a tenor, he sang the same way, as a baritone, with the same powerful column of sound, which meant his voice was powerful and flexible below the staff, and very flat above it.

You must understand, the difference between the tenor technique and the baritone is one of the training of the passaggio. Essentially, a baritone does not use anything above the passaggio, so he does not need to equalize the pitches of the upper register. However, if a tenor does not equalize these pitches, his registers will spread and his top notes will disappear.

In times past, many voices that today sing as baritones sung as tenors. For the example, consider Adolphe Nourrit: without the voix mixte, he would not have been able to sing above A or G-sharp. The power and richness of the voice that allowed him to win as Arnoldo and Eleazar the Jew came from this base, while the ringing top notes that he used for Raoul came from the voix mixte.

The fully-developed voix mixte is not light and effete, but rich and ringing, because the more it is used (if it has been correctly developed) the greater the union between the head and chest.

This is why Thill and Lauri-Volpi had C5s and D5s that only became richer and fuller in old age.

Unlike Melchior, I do not believe the tenor voice is built on the baritone: very the opposite — the tenor is built on falsetto.

Edmund StAustell said...

That is such an interesting comment. You surely know your singers and your singing technique. You ought to write a book! I bow to your knowledge; I am not at all too proud to say that your expertise exceeds my own. I treasure and save these comments, from which I am learning a lot, to be honest. And you are sbsolutely right about the tenor voice being built on the falsetto; those are among the first words that Manuel Garcia wrote in "L'Art du Chant." And it is the absolute basis of great bel canto singing for the tenor. Bravo!