Acclaimed by Herbert von Karajan, no less, as ‘the Carmen of the century’, Teresa Berganza was a singer who defied easy categorization. Her voice, pure and even throughout its two-and-a-half octave compass, was both distinctive and exceptionally beautiful: a creamy, subtly-coloured mezzo that soared and shone in the soprano range. Beginning her long career in Monteverdi, Bach and arie antiche, Berganza first made her international reputation in Mozart and Rossini. Two decades later, her revelatory Carmen in Piero Faggioni’s 1977 Edinburgh Festival production, conducted by Claudio Abbado, is still talked about by those whose heard it. ‘Carmen involved a personal change in my character,’ she later recalled. ‘Until then I’d always played “nice” roles, with none of the sheer force of this one.’
Berganza was, of course, a natural in the operas and (in her early career) zarzuelas of her native Spain – say, as the miller’s wife in Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos, or as an earthy and impassioned Salud in La vida breve (which she recorded with José Carreras as her faithless lover Paco). After her triumphant Carmen, and now with a richer, smokier lower register, she further extended her operatic repertoire to embrace such roles as Dulcinée (in Massenet’s Don Quichotte), and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, hailed in Gramophone as one of the finest on record. The vocal allure and vivid presence she brought to her many stage roles also informed her recital appearances, in music that ranged from arie antiche to French mélodies and the Spanish and Basque songs in which she was consummate.
Born in Madrid in 1935, Berganza attributes her rock-solid technique to the scrupulous schooling she received from Lola Rodriguez Aragón, who had herself been a pupil of the great Elisabeth Schumann. After winning first prize at the Madrid Conservatory in 1954, she provoked critical superlatives when she sang Dorabella, aged just 22, in the 1957 Aix-en-Provence Festival. Glyndebourne lost no time snapping up the young mezzo as Cherubino for their 1958 Figaro, in which her wide-eyed, coltish eagerness frequently stole the show.
‘Her execution of florid music and ability to colour words and phrases make her the ideal Rossini singer,’ wrote Harold Rosenthal in the New Grove Dictionary of Music. With her captivating stage personality and dazzling coloratura technique – honed in her rigorous schooling in traditional bel canto methods – Berganza was indeed a natural in Rossini, who with Mozart remained one of the twin cornerstones of her career. She made her debut at the Piccola Scala in 1958 as Isolier in Le comte Ory, and her US debut as Isabella (L’italiana in Algeri) the following year. After her 1960 Covent Garden debut as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, this plum Rossini mezzo role became another of her calling cards, along with the title role in La Cenerentola, with which Berganza had delighted Glyndebourne audiences in 1959. In his history of Glyndebourne (Methuen, 1965), Spike Hughes admiringly noted ‘that peculiar Spanish quality of voice and personality which had characterised Conchita Supervia’s classic performance of the part’.