Teresa Berganza obituary

·5 min read

Spanish opera singer who enjoyed international acclaim for her vibrant performances in the works of Rossini, Mozart and Bizet

One of the most popular and admired mezzo-sopranos of the modern era, Teresa Berganza, who has died aged 89, was once described by the conductor Herbert von Karajan as “the Carmen of the century”. With a voice that married lustrous tone to formidable technical artistry and a captivating stage presence, she excelled in a relatively narrow repertoire judiciously developed to harness her talents.

Having mastered the skills required for coloratura roles, not least in the operas of Rossini, she progressed, by her own account, to Mozart for “his style, his soul”. As she once said, “Mozart is my Messiah. Just call me a mystic, I don’t mind. My name is Teresa for a reason.” Only then did she finally accede to the many requests to undertake the role of Carmen, to which she brought both a vocal and theatrical vibrancy and a remarkably individual conception.

She attributed her technical security to her studies in Madrid with Lola Rodríguez Aragón, a pupil of Elisabeth Schumann, graduating from the conservatory there with the top prize for singers. Having made her debut as Dorabella (Così Fan Tutte) at Aix-en-Provence in 1957, she returned as Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Purcell’s Dido, Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Octavia (L’incoronazione di Poppea) and Ruggiero (Handel’s Alcina). The following year she sang Isolier in Le Comte Ory at the Piccolo Scala and Cherubino at Glyndebourne.

Teresa Berganza in Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola in the early 1970s.
Teresa Berganza in Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola in the early 1970s. Photograph: Erich Auerbach/Getty Images

Her Covent Garden debut in 1960 was as Rosina, and she returned to sing Cherubino and the title role in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Her debut at the Met in 1967 was as Cherubino. She sang roles in operas by Mozart, Cherubini and Cesti at Vienna, Paris, Salzburg and elsewhere. The somewhat classical restraint that habitually marked her performances may have been a product of a puritanical upbringing: in adolescence she considered becoming a nun. Certainly there was a precision and focus in her delivery that, while enabling her to dispatch coloratura embellishment with facility, could make her performances slow to catch fire. Yet there would be flashes of brilliance – a dazzlingly executed turn of phrase, a thrilling climactic top note – that would light up the stage. An appealing stage presence contributed to the allure she radiated.

As well as first wishing to master the demands of Rossini and Mozart, doubtless her religious scruples played a part in eschewing offers to take on the role of Carmen.

When Peter Diamand of the Edinburgh festival finally managed to persuade her to undertake it in 1977, it was on the condition that the production should, as she put it in her autobiography, “eradicate the distorted image of Carmen that has always been presented to the public”.

Speaking to women “living in the caves outside Granada” in order to “better understand Gypsy life”, as well as studying the Meilhac/Halévy libretto, and the Merimée novella on which it was based, she became convinced that the local colour imposed on the setting was that of an “imagined tourists’ paradise that never was, and never can be, Spain” – an impression to which both Merimée and Bizet contributed.

The production by Piero Faggioni, with designs by Egio Frigerio, intentionally deglamorised the action, staging it as a series of flashbacks as seen by Don José awaiting execution in his prison cell. Faggioni also honed Berganza’s acting abilities to emphasise her qualities as a seductive and spirited independent woman, rather than an exemplar of free love. “She speaks with her heart, her body, her guts,” as she put it.

As she engaged with the role, her voice became smokier, more robust and dramatic, as a result of which she went on to essay Suzuki in Madama Butterfly (which she recorded under Giuseppe Sinopoli) and Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Teresa Berganza Vargas was born in Madrid to parents of sharply divergent ideologies. Her father, Guillermo Berganza, was an accountant of a leftwing, atheist persuasion. He also played the trumpet and piano. Her Catholic mother, Ascensión Vargas, was a monarchist and later a supporter of the future dictator Francisco Franco. Their daughter’s acquired religiosity originally encouraged her to contemplate the direction of a convent choir or the teaching of music at a religious school. It was Aragón who persuaded her to take instead to the stage.

At the Madrid conservatory she met her future husband, Félix Lavilla, later a pianist and composer. He became her accompanist, and after their first recital he proposed to her. They married in 1957 and had three children, Teresa, Javier and Cecilia. They had to communicate with her in writing in the run-up to performances, and Cecilia became a soprano herself.

The marriage ended in divorce in 1977, and Berganza’s decision to seek spiritual guidance some years later from a Spanish priest, José Rifá, who had long admired her singing, resulted in Rifá abandoning his vocation in order to marry her, in 1986. The marriage was subsequently annulled and Rifa returned to the priesthood, while Berganza took up yoga and meditation.

Alongside her primary operatic roles, she sang French and Italian art songs (sometimes a little dutifully), but also brought a native’s enthusiasm to Spanish zarzuelas, arias and Gypsy ballads. She undertook the role of Salud in her compatriot Manuel de Falla’s La Vida Breve and the Gypsy Woman in Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés (The Wild Cat).

Later in her career she made notable appearances as Carmen in a TV film with Plácido Domingo (1980) and at the opening ceremonies of Expo ’92 in Seville and of the Barcelona Olympics the same year. Her autobiography, Un Monde Habité par le Chant (A World Inhabited by Song), written with Olivier Bellamy, was published in 2013.

She is survived by her children.

• Teresa Berganza Vargas, mezzo-soprano, born 16 March 1933; died 13 May 2022

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting