OP3269. TOSCA, Live Performance, 11 April, 1959, w.Kurt Adler Cond. Eleanor Steber, Carlo Bergonzi, George London, etc. (Canada) 2-St Laurent Studio YSL T-726.
“I sang two Toscas before our broadcast performance on April 11, and after one of them my husband mentioned that my leap off the parapet at the end wasn’t visible to the audience. ‘If you are going to risk breaking your neck’, he quipped, ‘why don’t you do it out there where everyone can see you?’.
We experimented before the broadcast, setting the mattress so I could leap dramatically but safely to my death. When Tosca plunged from the Sant’ Angelo that afternoon, it was only a two-point landing. I gave the jump all I had - which was too much – and tumbled off the far side of the mattress. My head hit the floor with a terrible crack; I chipped a tooth and cut my lip….
During that evening’s performance of LA GIOCONDA [not CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA], Pat [Tavernia, our stage director] was chatting in the wings with Zinka Milanov (one of the Met’s great Toscas) and asked ‘ Did you hear what happened to Steber this afternoon?’ ‘Naw’, replied Milanov. ‘Vat happent?’ ‘Well, when she jumped from the parapet she overshot the mattress, cracked her head and cut her lip’. Milanov arched an eyebrow. ‘Vel, I always told Eleanor the part was too heavy for her!’.
- Eleanor Steber, ELEANOR STEBER - AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, p.201
“…George London provides the dominant portrayal of the afternoon. His Scarpia is a brute of a man, all strength and arrogance. In contrast to the courtly elegance of Warren and Schöffler’s businessman police chief, London revels in overt violence, pouring out black, icily severe tones with unstinting power….[his] tone turns to lava, its heat continuing to prevail in the torture chamber. This Scarpia is black-hearted but purple-voiced, something sensuous in the tone, arresting to the listener, and perhaps to Tosca as well.
- Paul Jackson, SIGN-OFF FOR THE OLD MET, p.429
“In the many performances I have appeared in, there were many wonderful colleagues who had me in raptures. There were those with magnificent voices, or great musicians, wonderful actors or great personalities. But George London had it ALL. He was as impressive on stage as he was the wonderful colleague and friend in his private life.”
- Birgit Nilsson, as quoted in Leonardo A. Ciampa’s THE TWILIGHT OF BELCANTO, p.130
"Considered the foremost Verdi tenor of his age, Mr. Bergonzi sang more than 300 times with the Metropolitan Opera of New York from the 1950s to the '80s, appearing opposite a roster of celebrated divas that included Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Renata Tebaldi, Rise Stevens, Victoria de los Angeles and Leontyne Price.
A lyric tenor of some vocal heft, Mr. Bergonzi lacked the sonic weight and brilliance of tenors in the Wagnerian mold. But what he did possess was an instrument of velvety beauty and nearly unrivaled subtlety.
'More than the sound of the voice, it is Mr. Bergonzi's way of using it that is so special', Peter G. Davis, reviewing a 1978 Carnegie Hall recital by Mr. Bergonzi, wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES. 'He is a natural singer in that everything he does seems right and inevitable - the artful phrasing, the coloristic variety, the perfectly positioned accents, the theatrical sense of well-proportioned climaxes, the honest emotional fervor. Best of all, Mr. Bergonzi obviously uses these effects artistically because he feels them rather than intellectualizes them - a rare instinctual gift, possibly the most precious one any musician can possess'. In the view of his many fans, this vocal elegance amply compensated for the fact that Mr. Bergonzi was no actor and, by his own ready admission, no matinee idol. 'I know I don't look like Rudolph Valentino', he told THE TIMES in 1981. 'I know what a proper physique should be for the parts I sing, but I have tried to learn to act through the voice. The proper, pure expression of the line is the most important thing'.
Mr. Bergonzi began his career as a baritone, and after becoming a tenor a few years later was careful not to push his voice past its natural confines. As a result, he largely escaped the vocal wear that can force singers to retire by the time they reach their early 50s; Mr. Bergonzi, by contrast, continued to sing on prominent stages - and, as critical opinion had it, sing well - into his late 60s.
During World War II, Mr. Bergonzi spent three years in a German concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. He returned home after the war, weighing 80 pounds, and resumed singing.
Mr. Bergonzi made his operatic debut in 1948 as a baritone, singing the title part in Rossini's BARBER OF SEVILLE in Lecce, in southern Italy. After coming to realize that tenor parts were better situated for his voice, he made a second debut, as a tenor, in the title role in Umberto Giordano's ANDREA CHENIER in Bari in 1951.
In 1955, Mr. Bergonzi made his United States debut with the Lyric Theater of Chicago (now the Lyric Opera of Chicago) as Luigi in Puccini's IL TABARRO. The next year, on 13 November, he made his Met debut as Radames opposite Antonietta Stella, also making her debut that night.
Mr. Bergonzi also appeared at La Scala, 1953, and at Covent Garden, where he made his debut in 1962 as Don Alvaro in Verdi's FORZA DEL DESTINO. At the Met, in March 1964, Mr. Bergonzi was a soloist (with Ms. Price, Rosalind Elias and Cesare Siepi) in an acclaimed performance of the Verdi REQUIEM in memory of President John F. Kennedy, under the baton of Georg Solti.
In 1994, Mr. Bergonzi, then 70, took the stage at Carnegie Hall for what was billed as his American farewell recital. The concert, a program of Italian art songs and arias, concluded with a 50-minute ovation and was warmly reviewed by critics. But as it transpired, that concert was no farewell. In 2000, two months shy of his 76th birthday, Mr. Bergonzi sang the one Verdi role he had never attempted: the title part in OTELLO, one of the most fiendishly demanding tenor roles in opera, in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York under Eve Queler. His performance - a high-wattage Carnegie Hall affair whose audience included Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Sherrill Milnes, Licia Albanese and Anna Moffo - was, by wide critical consensus, an unreconstructed disaster. 'It was immediately apparent that there was something wrong', THE GUARDIAN wrote shortly afterward. 'A grainy tone in the voice inhibited everything. Bergonzi strained audibly in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the high A that caps the triumphant entry phrase'. Mr. Bergonzi withdrew from the performance after two acts, leaving his role in Acts III and IV to be sung by an understudy, Antonio Barasorda.
But the younger, supple-voiced Mr. Bergonzi endures on his many recordings, including several of AIDA (opposite Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo and Montserrat Caballé; a BOHEME and a BUTTERFLY opposite Renata Tebaldi; Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR with Beverly Sills; and a three-record set for Philips on which he sings all of the Verdi tenor arias."
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26 July, 2014