Another Great Has Left the Stage

Teresa Berganza
March 16, 1933 – May 13, 2022

Teresa Berganza in 2018 receiving a Lfetime Achievement Honour at the International Opera Awards.

I awoke this morning to the news that my beloved Teresa Berganza had passed away earlier today. She was a singer I fell in love with the first time I heard her on a recording of Handel’s Alcina in 1962. Though I had bought the three record set because it starred Joan Sutherland I came away for it with Berganza’s voice sounding in my ears. She appeared in recital at Massey Hall several months later and when I met her afterwards she was warm and very indulgent of a teenager with a crush.

I had the good fortune to see her as Ruggerio in Alcina at Aix-en-Provence in 1978 and once again her “Verdi prati” had an simple elegance and grace that has never been matched. One thing I remember from evening was the silence at the end of the aria that was followed by thunderous applause. It is captured well in this clip from that production.

The warrior Ruggerio (Berganza) leads his lady love who is disguised as a knight (Ann Murray) to safety through the enchanted forest of the evil Alcina.

I am pretty sure I owned all of her records – particularly the complete operas and the various recitals. She was known for her performances as Rossini’s Isabella, Rosina, and Cenerentola. Unfortunately I never saw her in a Rossini opera – I had tickets for Cenerentola in Paris but took ill when in London and came home early. But I was to see her at the Paris Opera as Cherubino, another of her signature roles, in an all-star Nozze di Figaro that included my equally loved Teresa Stratas.

Berganza often sang “trouser roles” and her Cherubino was seldom equalled. She had sprung onto the scene at Aix-en-Provence and was much loved (with reason) there. And no I wasn’t there in 1962!

I’ve told the tale on here of one of the great evenings I’ve spent in an opera house: May 1980 – Carmen with Berganza and Placido Domingo at the Opéra Comique in Paris. I didn’t have a ticket but took a chance.

Standing in line for five hours at the Opera Comique waiting for a cancellation for the Berganza-Domingo Carmen. Enduring the abuse of the lumpy spun-sugar blond vendeuse at the box office. “Vous–etes fou d’attender” she heckled repeatedly, then magically produced a front row 1st loge seat 2 minutes to curtain time. The abuse was worth it – one of my great evenings at the opera.

There will never be another Carmen like her. This was not the hip-swaying slattern so often seen but a flirtatious, sensual free spirit. She was sly, seductive, playful and ultimately tragic. She was Carmen!

I was in the audience that May night in 1980, I’m sure you can hear me screaming my brava in that ovation at the end.

After her retirement from the stage she became a much sought after and loved teacher. Her master classes – many were filmed – were a reflection of her warmth as a person and her art as a musician.

Dear Teresa – you have given me much joy since that first recording; I thank you. Rest in Peace.

The word for May 13th is:
Beloved /bəˈləvəd/: [1. adjective 2. noun]
1. Dearly loved
2. A much loved person
Late Middle English: past participle of obsolete belove ‘be pleasing’, later ‘love’.

Mercoledi Musicale

Sevilla has served as the setting for several of the more famous operas. Rossini’s Barbiere not only practices his tonsorial talents there but proudly proclaims his home town in song and title. Mozart’s Don spectacularly fails to seduce any of the maidens in his birthplace (or at least not in DaPonte’s version). Leonore, disguised as Fidelio, rescues her husband from the clutches of the evil Don Pizzaro after his long stay at a suburban prison. Verdi’s Leonora plans to run away from Sevilla with her Peruvian boyfriend get botched in Act 1 and then she doesn’t see him again until Act 4 then promptly dies.

And Bizet’s Carmen – well now that’s a story isn’t it? She works in the Real Fábrica de Tabacos rolling cigars when she isn’t rolling customs guards in the nearby Sierra Madres.   And I’m told tour guides in Sevilla are more than happy to show you were she worked and, though I’m not sure how true this is, the odd one can show you the spot, if not the blood stain, on the the Plaza de Toros where Don Jose stabbed her!

I’ve oft recorded that one of the great evenings I spent at the opera was back in May of 1980 at the Opéra Comique in Paris.  Teresa Berganza had agreed to sing Carmen the year before at Edinburgh provided that the “Spanish” cliches were avoided.  Conductor Claudio Abbado, producer Piero Faggioni and designer Ezio Frigerio built a production around her that was low-keyed, restrained and superbly successful.  Unfortunately by the time it reached Paris Abbado – in a dispute over which orchestra was to be used – had bowed out and was replaced by Pierre Dervaux,   But the main draw remained: Teresa Berganza as Carmen.

In 1984 in conversation with Bruce Duffie she had this to say about the role:

BD:  Is Carmen at all a nice lady?

TB:  Yes, she’s a delightful lady – enchanting.  The problem with audiences going to see Carmen is that they don’t understand who she is.  She has so often been presented as a bad prostitute, and she is not a good or a bad prostitute.  She is a gypsy woman.  Audiences don’t often understand that.  If she were a prostitute, she wouldn’t be working in a cigar factory.  She would have accepted Don José and then given him horns [deceived him] with 5 or 6 men at the same time.  If she were a prostitute, she would have a rich lover and be covered with jewels.  And, if she were a prostitute, she wouldn’t have stood up to José and let him kill her.  She would have fled.  But she is not that.  She is a free spirit, a special woman. . . a liberated woman.

BD:  Do these kinds of women still exist?
TB:  Of course.  It is important to understand the gypsy people, because they are free people.

BD:  Does Carmen plan a few steps ahead or does she just let things happen around her?
TB:  Carmen believes in destiny.  She believes in the cards, so as to preparation, she doesn’t believe that it would make any difference.  The destiny is there.  She has read it in the cards and she goes forward to meet this destiny at the end.  This is the story that Mérimée wrote in his nouvelle and this is the story that Halévey and Meilhac wrote in their libretto and what Bizet put into the music.

BD:  So she goes to meet it rather than fight it?
TB:  She does not fight.  She accepts.

© 1984 Bruce Duffie

And that’s exactly how she played and sang it – and when she suggests to poor Don José (Placido Domingo) what happens Près des remparts de Séville he doesn’t stand a chance.

You might just hear me – from my first row Circle seat – amongst the cheering audience that glorious night in May.  This video brings back some wonderful memories of an glorious evening.

Mr Duffie’s interview with one of, in my opinion, greats of the operatic world is available here

March 26 -1351: Combat of the Thirty : Thirty Breton Knights call out and defeat thirty English Knights.

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A Short Evening of Petit

December was an eventful month musically with much going on operatically, orchestrally and on the dance scene. Couple that with holiday happenings and schedule conflicts meant some things had to be missed. But some fancy footwork and manipulating of TrenItalia schedules did allow me to see a Riccardo Muti conducted Moïse et Pharon at the Teatro dell’Opera on my birthday and then make a run to La Scala for the new Die Walküre the next night. Observations on both those performances should follow shortly. I had been looking forward to the mid-month Academia Santa Cecilia Christmas concert – note not Holiday Concert but Christmas Concert – and the opportunity to hear both Arthur Honegger’s Une cantate de Noël and the much talked about young baritone Jacques Imbrailo but other commitments made it impossible.

However I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see Eleonora Abbagnato, the Sicilian born premiere danseuse, of the Paris Opéra Ballet in Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne at the Teatro dell’Opera. And the fact that it was being paired with Petit’s ground-breaking Carmen starring Polina Semionova, one of my favourite dancers, made the evening a must-see. So on the second last night of the year our friends Simonetta, Brigitte, Lorraine, Simon and Laurent and I ensconced ourselves in a palco at the Teatro dell’Opera for una Serata Roland Petit.

Abbagnato is as much known here in Italy for her commercials and magazine appearances (including a few of the gossip rags) as she is for her dance work but that all falls in the shadows when she steps on stage. This is a dancer who has “star” in every step she takes and even her stillness has impact. Though the role of Vivette doesn’t have the showy opportunities that Petit gives to his male dancer in this tale of obsessive love it is technically and theatrically one of nuance and Abbagnato makes every moment on stage electric.

As often happens at the Teatro dell’Opera the originally announced cast list qualified as a work of fiction – Benjamin Pech, Abbagnato’s frequent partner in Paris, was scheduled to dance Frederi but was replaced by Alessandro Riga, a dancer who received his major training here in Roma. It was an impressive substitution. Petit’s choreography for the village boy driven mad by his love for an unfaithful girl from Arlés requires virtuosity as both a dancer and an actor: after a slightly tentative beginning Riga delivered both. That final desperate descent into madness was electric and the suicidal leap breathtaking. He is listed as a “guest artist” for several productions in the coming months – it will be interesting to see him in other types of roles.

I had seen L’Arlésienne many years ago when Petit’s Ballet de Marseilles brought it to Ottawa along with the Carmen that he had revived for Karen Kain. I don’t recall it having the same impact as it did in this performance. Even with the less than stellar company of the Teatro dell’Opera the power of this piece of dance-making, with the central drama set within the framework of the folk-inspired movements of the Corps de Ballet, came through.

Here is Eleonora Abbagnato with her frequent partner (on and off stage) Jérémie Bélingard in the final scene of L’Arlésienne. Unfortunately it is split in two clips and the dark setting does obscure some of the complex leg work that Petit demands of the male dancer – but Bélingard is incredible in this performance as is Abbagnato in a quieter way.


My friend Simonetta and I turned to each other almost simultaneously at the end of the Carmen and muttered “dated”. This is arguably Petit’s most famous work and one of his earliest – it was created in 1949 for his Ballet de Paris and more particularly for his wife the great French ballerina-performer Zizi Jeanmarie. Looking at it now it is very much dance theatre of its time – even the once striking decor and costumes by Antoni Calvé have a musty feel to them. On the way home Laurent remarked that he kept thinking “Gene Kelly” and there was a certain truth to that – the choreography has a quality to it that marks it as a piece of dance from the 50s. Perhaps with a Carmen of more sensuality than Semionova – she’s just too nice – and a José of more passion than Robert Tewsley it would have had more impact. I recall seeing Semionova and Roberto Bolle dancing the pas de deux at a Gala two years ago and feeling at that time that there was something missing. In both instances the technique was there but not the sexuality.

The company put a good deal of energy into the performance and notable amongst the gypsies, cigarette girls and riff-raff of Seville was Alessandra Amato as the chief bandit. She is a dancer who has demonstrated rare skill over the past few years and it has been interesting watching her develop. Hopefully the Company’s new director, Micha van Hoeck, will give us more opportunity to see her in other roles.

Though there have been great dancers who have assumed the roles of Carmen and José there have never been any to challenge the sensuality and sexuality that Zizi and Petit brought to those first performances. Fortunately it was caught on film in Black Tights, a 1960 dance film that featured four dance pieces choreographed by Petit for Zizi, Moira Shearer and Cyd Charisse.

It was an enjoyable evening but as I made note in the title a rather short one. Perhaps budgetary constraints stopped van Hoecke from programming a third Petit work to fill out the evening. It would have been interesting to see another of his works – Le Loup, Le jeune homme et la mort or even the Company’s lead male dancer Mario Marozzi in Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune which he danced here several years ago. However given the current financial situation – the Company is only presenting 4 programmes this season – I should just thank the gods he was able to give us an evening of dance at all.

04 gennaio – Beata Angela da Foligno

Canoodling at Caracalla

There was more passion going on in the row in front of me at Friday night’s Carmen then on stage. The young couple – she: pretty, green chiffon dress with a shoulder strap that wouldn’t stay in place, big cascade of hair; he: slender, tanned and been told by his mother since birth that he was the most gorgeous boy on earth – cuddled, cooed and had a disagreement during the 3 hours we spent at Caracalla. Would that we had seen half that much passion on stage!

But of passion there was little evidence in conductor Karle Mark Chichon’s interpretation of Bizet’s best known work. His approach was flabby and lacked any sort of zest. Not quite lifeless but certainly not evocative of gypsy life and liberty. And there were moments when coordination between stage and pit went painfully awry – particularly the smuggler’s chorus that opened Act 3. With the elimination of most of the dialogue/recitative it seemed he was conducting a “Carmen: the greatest hits” often with one well-known number following right after the last. It also meant that some of the action was a little confusing – what the hell was Zuniga doing back at the tavern? Oh yeah he told Carmen he was coming back, except that bit had been cut so who knew?

Director/Designer Renzo Giacchieri used the bridge from last year’s Madama Butterfly very effectively to set the four scenes of Carmen. With budget cuts of up to 30% economy is the watch word in Italian culture today.

After the horror that was Tosca two weeks ago it was nice to see a more traditional approach without a director’s subtext imposed upon it. Director/designer Renzo Giacchieri used the stage wide bridge from last year’s Madama Butterfly as his main design feature and adapted it effectively for each of the four scenes. His direction – with one major and devastating exception – was inoffensive and any “innovations” did little harm to the drama. The exception? His – and perhaps mezzo Elina Garanča’s – conception of Carmen. This was the hip swaying, legs splaying, thigh hugging, Carmen as slut school! Wrong! Wronger! Wrongest! Carmen is not, I repeat, not a prostitute! You take that approach and the whole story becomes nothing more than a tart getting her come uppence from an angry john. And ladies and gentlemen that is not the opera that Bizet, Meilhac and Halévy wrote. Hell it isn’t even the novella that Mérimée penned.

And frankly Garanča had problems pulling it off. Physically she is a beautiful woman – unfortunately a black wig hid some of that beauty – and the voice has a slightly smoky seductive quality, though that wasn’t evident until the Seguedille. Many of her videos have a highly charged sexuality when she just stands and sings but when she moved – or perhaps because of the way she moved – sensuality was a quality that was missing. And the dark tone needed for the Card scene just isn’t there – the repeated “La morte” lacked the needed sense of immovable fate. Granted the sounds were never less than beautiful – not a given these days – and I can see why she is being regarded as one of the emerging stars of the operatic world. I would like to see her in one of her Rossini or Bellini roles because, without wanting to sound like commentors on some blogs, I just don’t think she is on the same level as the Carmens of my experience.

Originally Marcello Alvarez had been announced as the Don José but his name disappeared from the notices about three weeks ago and was replaced by that of Valter Borin, who appears to be specializing in the role in Italy’s outdoor venues this summer. His is one of those big blaring voices that seems to start at forte and gets louder from there. His Air de Fleur lacked the necessary lyricism but he did rise above the ordinary in some of the bigger moments. The same can be said for Carlo Colombara’s beefy Escamillo who gave a respectable version of the Toredor Song, no doubt inspired by the large part of the audience who thought they would encourage him by humming along.

Though the character is a bit of cipher – come now who really cares about the girl he left behind when you got a hot blooded gypsy on stage – Ermonela Jaho’s Micaela was the best performances of the evening. She sang with a lovely floating tone and brought real sense of the girl’s plight to her Act 3 aria. She’s a singer I would like to hear more of. With the exception of the very squally and strident toned Frasquita and Mercedes the smaller roles were adequately sang.

The generally reliable Teatro dell’Opera chorus marched, smoked, brawled, threw flowers, quaffed wine and generally behaved the way an opera chorus should while not making as beautiful a sound as they normally do. Both in the Tosca and in the Carmen they have been off form – perhaps it is the uncertainty of their future that is distracting them.

Elina Garanča leaving the stage to get conductor Karl Mark Chichon during the curtain calls at the end of Saturday night’s Carmen. She was not pleased about something and gave both the conductor and tenor glaring looks – wonder what was going on backstage?

And things at the Opera are very uncertain at the moment – I won’t rehearse the Byzantine turn of events that have put the future in question but performances of the level presented at Caracalla this year do raise concerns about artistic standards. Sure the tourists will buy tickets because its Rome, its Italy, its a historic site and some because they enjoy opera but for the first time in three years I noticed empty blocks of seats at both performances.

Oh and our canoodling couple – well by the time Don José got around to doing Carmen in they had made up and were on their way to the happy ending denied Bizet’s gypsy.

03 agosto – San Nicolò Politi

Mercoledi Musicale

I mentioned that we were getting Elina Garanca here during the summer run of Carmen at the Baths of Caracalla. Here’s the Latvian diva herself doing the Seguidille from that opera.

The opera queens operaphiles may not necessarily agree but I find both renditions more than enjoyable. I can hardly wait to see Garanca at the Baths – that doesn’t sound right but you know what I mean!

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