Teresa Berganza, acclaimed Spanish soprano, dies at 89

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Teresa Berganza, a Spanish mezzo-soprano admired for her lithe, radiant and impeccably crafted performances in operas by Mozart and Rossini, died May 13 at her home in the former town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, now part of Greater Madrid. She was 89 years old.

The Spanish Ministry of Culture announced the death but did not provide further details. Her daughter Cecilia Lavilla Berganza, a soprano, wrote in a Facebook post that her mother asks for as little noise as possible. “I came into the world and no one found out,” she quoted her mother, “so I wish the same when I leave.”

Ms. Berganza was best known in the United States for her numerous recordings, including more than 20 solo albums as well as a dozen complete operas. She has appeared in several films, the most famous of which is director Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, a surprise box office hit in 1979, in which she sang the role of Zerlina.

His personal appearances in America were few, beginning at the Dallas Opera in 1958, continuing in Chicago, San Francisco and finally a single season at the Metropolitan Opera in 1967-68.

No one has ever explained the shortness of Ms Berganza’s career at the Met. But her voice was never big, and it’s possible the 3,700-seat house was just too huge for her. She was also already busy in Britain, where she was revered, and throughout Europe. Each time she returned to the United States thereafter, it was almost always as a recitalist – and very well, at that.

Of a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1982, Donal Henahan, then chief music critic of the New York Times, wrote that “it was by no means a mere recital of notes and words, but a recital in the best musical sense. ”

“It was impossible at any time to separate the singer’s voice from the meaning of the text, even if it had been desirable,” continues Henahan. “Occasionally the listener would become vaguely aware of articulation, emphasis, stress, or shades of color, but these shades were so inextricably linked to the words that such distinctions could not be felt. “

Ms. Berganza has always been an individualist and has spoken her mind. She refused to sing an opera in translation (“it sounds like an absolute betrayal of the composer,” she told Chicago radio host Bruce Duffie in 1984), and she developed a reputation for canceling last minute performances.

“I will never allow myself to sing in bad conditions when my voice is not ready to sing,” she said in the Duffie interview and added that she was proud to be part of a “trio” which included conductor Carlos Kleiber and pianist Arturo Benedetti. Michelangeli – about whom the same complaint had been made.

“We all cancel when we feel like we’re not ready to give our best, 100 per cent,” Ms Berganza said. “I don’t really cancel very often, but when I do, that’s why. I always have to have respect for myself and for my audience who come not to hear what’s left of me, but to hear Teresa Berganza. It’s my life.”

Teresa Berganza was born in Madrid on March 16, 1933. Her father, an accountant who played the piano and the trumpet, organized early music lessons for her. She aspired as a child to become a nun and she entered the Madrid Conservatory with the aim of learning piano and organ for her religious vocation.

Her ambitions changed thanks to a teacher who marveled at her talent as a singer, earning her first place in a competition sponsored by the conservatory. She also married Félix Lavilla, a piano student who became her accompanist.

She made her operatic debut in 1957 at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in France as Dorabella in “Così Fan Tutte”. Soon she was singing at La Scala in Milan and at the Vienna State Opera. She had huge success in England as Cherubino in a 1958 performance at Glyndebourne Opera House of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ which brought her fame and launched her recording career.

His concert repertoire was extensive, including Catalan folk melodies as well as song cycles by Schubert, Schumann, Mussorgsky and Mahler. She said she mostly dropped out of opera performances because the prep time was almost always insufficient.

“I often worked in all the opera houses, with conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm and Carlo Maria Giulini, who all insisted on at least a month of rehearsal,” she said. told the Australian newspaper The Age in 1994. days, the conductor was the main power of the opera. These days, with few exceptions, the conductor is the one who walks in, waves the baton, and leaves. No responsibility, no decision.

After her retirement, she remained active as a teacher in Spain and gave master classes all over the world.

She had three children with Lavilla, whom she divorced in 1977 after playing the liberated proto-feminist Carmen at the Edinburgh Festival and in Paris at that time. In 1986, she married José Rifá, a priest with whom she had discussed her separation. He left the church to marry Ms. Berganza, but they later divorced. In addition to Lavilla Berganza, survivors include her two other children, Teresa and Javier.

In her vast repertoire, she says, Mozart and Rossini mean the most to her.

“With Rossini I discovered technique and perfection, with Mozart purity and spirit,” she told French publication L’Express in 2005. “My teacher once told me : ‘Teresa, when you have learned to sing the duet with Figaro from the “Barber of Seville”, it will be the day when you will have nothing more to fear. ”

“Imagine walking on the edge of a precipice – that’s what it’s like to sing the Barber duet,” she added. “It’s dizzying. The notes rush then stop abruptly. The vocal line is majestic one moment, dancing on point the next. The dynamic shifts from forte to pianissimo in seconds, phrasing from legato to staccato. Even now , to keep my breath and muscle control in shape, I sing Rossini every day.

“As for Mozart,” she continues, “his music needs above all purity and absolute self-control. There’s a lot of passion in Mozart’s recitatives and arias, just like in Rossini, but it’s a more ethereal, intangible passion – and, yes, pure.

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