Richard Bonelli: A Survey of Recordings

by Alan Bilgora

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After his period of assiduous study in the U.S.A., and later with William Vilonat and also Jean de Reszke in Paris, Bonelli’s early career was honed by considerable European experience as a member of several outstanding casts of international repute. In spite of those glowing words about his Tonio in Pagliacci quoted at the beginning of the article, and having earlier made a great impression at his début at the Metropolitan Opera, Richard Bonelli, although generally appreciated, in the eyes and ears of his fellow Americans never quite emerged from under the shadow of Lawrence Tibbett and John Charles Thomas.

Certainly, the North American continent can be justifiably proud of its baritone heritage. A number of these singers eventually achieved and sustained international status. Some excelled in opera, others as concert and recital performers and a few specialized in comprimario roles. However, all enjoyed careers that, although varied in length, were yet worthy of mention, with their talents recorded for posterity. From the days of David Bispham, through to Clarence Whitehill, Herbert Witherspoon, Reinald Werrenrath, Emilio De Gogorza, Oscar Seagle and Arthur Endreze, the line as we now know included Tibbett and Thomas and can be seen to run through to Nelson Eddy, Francesco Valentino, Julius Huehn, Osie Hawkins, Clifford Harvuot, Frank Guarrera, Walter Cassel, Donald Dickson, Kenneth Schon, Robert Weede, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Glen Darwin, Richard Torigi, Theodor Uppman, Jess Walters, Cornell McNeil, Thomas Tipton, Sherrill Milnes, Thomas Stewart and Conrad Thibault. The final decades of the 20th century saw the emergence of Dwayne Croft, Thomas Hampson, Dale Duesing, Richard Stilwell, Rodney Gilfry, Sanford Sylvan and William Sharp. It must be noted however, that these last mentioned, although displaying an extremely high degree of musicianship and possessing voices of some quality, have not been gifted with quite the same weight of opulence of tone so apparent in many of their predecessors. Distinguished black baritones must include Jules Bledsoe, Todd Duncan, William Warfield, Lawrence Winters and Simon Estes. We must not dismiss or forget the singers who made a career in films or on the ‘Musical’ stage, but who possessed voices that might well, with different stimuli, have led to classical careers. Certainly the vocal qualities of Alfred Drake (his brother sang at the Met as bass-baritone Arthur Kent), Bill Johnson, John Raitt, Edmund Hockridge, Robert Shackleton, Howard Keel (who was much admired by Bonelli), and Gordon Macrae would qualify here. Perhaps the enormous ethnic mix in over three centuries, coupled with what Europeans call the ‘American Drawl’, could be thought to impart that forward, manly and easy resonant sound, so much the hall-mark of the American baritone voice.

On Richard Bonelli’s few commercial recordings we can certainly hear a timbre that, although lyrical and un-constricted in emission, was also dark-tinged and virile, with a wonderfully-free upper extension and fully relaxed, resonant lower notes. From contemporary reviews he also looked well on stage and his histrionic ability coupled with a well-schooled vocal technique, enabled him not only to be a considerable actor with his voice but to delineate each role physically with its required character.

In view of his reputation, why he was not asked to make more commercial recordings for the Brunswick Company is a mystery. Of those made, many were of ballads rather than of material that underlined his operatic repertoire. Perhaps it was company policy to confine Bonelli’s output to ‘lighter fare’ so that his recordings in no way impinged on the sales of their other star baritone the eminent Giuseppe Danise. The pressings, in spite of a variable quality at times, owing no doubt to some of their original sources, in Bonelli’s case do capture the essential beauty of his vocal tone, as well as demonstrating his sound technique. Perhaps an analysis of some of those records will put his art into perspective, especially when compared with live ‘off the air’ recordings and, late in his career, those popular ballads that were issued on the MGM label.

The Brunswick recordings.

15138 Forza del Destino (Verdi) Solenne in quest’ora with Mario Chamlee. This is a well sung version with Bonelli offering good support to his bright-voiced tenor partner (whose vocal quality was thought by Caruso’s widow to most resemble that of her late husband). An exemplary attack by Bonelli on the high F on his entry Lo guiro is followed by a warm and balanced tone in the duet passages. Interestingly enough, when HMV first issued this duet with Caruso and Scotti the opera had not been staged for a long time. Purchasers of the recording were not sure which voice could be heard in the opening exchanges, particularly as Scotti’s high F sounded much like Caruso in that register. The actual text was printed on the reverse of the singe-sided pressing to help listeners identify the characters. It is worthy of comment that in particular Bonelli’s Italian is always idiomatic, as he never overemphasizes the A vowel. Too many non-Italians stress the final letter ‘e’ in a word so that for instance una chiave is sounded chiavay and fidate becomes fidatay. With Bonelli this vowel is always slightly flattened toward ‘eh’, giving it a more natural and authentic inflection.

Martha (Flotow) Solo profugo with Mario Chamlee. Both voices blend well. Although not vocally testing in any way Bonelli’s solo passages are suffused with a warm tone and
his legato is immaculate.

15198 Visione Veneziana (Brogi). This beautiful and evocative song requires smooth legato phrasing coupled with the maintaining of an undulating rhythm that simulates the movement of the gondola on the water. Again Bonelli’s Italian is beautifully articulated and the tune is quite ravishing, the higher phrases in particular are free and full-bodied. Likewise his singing of the famous Luna d’estate by Tosti has a winning charm that challenges many other famous versions for its romantic overtones.

15138 Bird Songs at Eventide (Coates). This lovely song makes demands on each type of voice that endeavors to do it justice as the compass is considerable. Sung here in a key that requires repeated full-bodied attacks on an E natural on the words Call me, Call me to you, Bonelli makes light of them, ending the final phrases in a persuasive mezza-voce and culminating with a poised soft and sustained falsetto top G natural. Really this is a very sensitive version. Love was with me yesterday (Hanson) This typical, romantic ballad of the early part of the 20th century shows to advantage Bonelli’s top register, where he allows himself to exploit a splendid top F sharp in the final verse.

13020 The Bohemian Girl (Balfe) With heart bowed down. A famous war-horse from this mid 19th Century opera that has now fallen out of favour is sung in a controlled mezza-voce. With a melody redolent of the early Victorian era Bonelli’s legato singing here is an object lesson in sustaining an unaffected vocal line. For all Eternity (Mascheroni). This typical sentimental romantic ballad allows Bonelli to indulge in a full voiced ringing and thrilling top G natural in the final cadences.

10264 The Fortune Teller (Victor Herbert) Slumber On My Little Gypsy Sweetheart. With its opening recitative that is quite operatic in mood, Bonelli launches into the well known melody, producing a full-bodied tone that is at once both heroic and romantic. It was one of the popular songs from this 1898 operetta by the King of American light music and Bonelli’s singing is irresistible. Pinsuti’s Bedouin Love Song is given the full romantic treatment, plenty of vibrant tone and a real swagger to the melody.

10127 The Palms (Faure). Had it been sung in the original language as ‘Les Rameaux’ Bonelli would have had stiff opposition from many a native French baritone. However, he sings here in an English translation and manages the religious overtones with gravitas, his version sounding sincere and well sung. The Holy City (Weatherley-Adams) is one of the most often sung and frequently recorded religious ballads of the day; Bonelli maintains the best traditions without becoming over-sentimental or making it sound too hackneyed. In fact it is sung with such fervour that the result is quite thrilling.

13009 Calling me home to you (Dorel). A pleasant enough song of thoughts about returning to a lost love, that is rescued from an excess of sentimentality by Bonelli’s forthright singing and his interpolating of a fairly dramatic high G at the end. Tommy, Lad! (Margetson) is an emotional ballad (almost a classical ‘Sonny Boy’) that is well characterized by Bonelli as he addresses his little son about the future.

In order that the listener can get a better idea of how Bonelli’s operatic performances should be judged, it is necessary to resort to radio broadcast transcriptions covering the years 1938-1955 that were issued by Ed. Smith on an LP EJS 4454-b. Here he can be heard singing arias covering some of the roles he undertook with success, either as a young man on tour with the San Carlo Opera of the USA, or at the Chicago or Metropolitan Opera. The radio acoustic demonstrates a harder and more metallic overtone than that of the recording studio, but, nevertheless, it is easy to hear his wide ranging, well controlled, full-bodied and highly-charged timbre throughout.

Faust (Gounod) Avant de quitter ces lieux. In this demanding aria, specially added to the original score by Gounod for Sir Charles Santley, the baritone voice is tested to its limits even when sung in a lower transposition. Here we have it sung in the original key with superb legato phrasing, rising cadences that contain sustained high G naturals all handled with consummate ease by Bonelli, who vocalizes in very acceptable French.  

Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Rossini) Largo al factotum. Figaro’s famous entrance aria has had many fine interpreters and Bonelli’s version ranks as one of the most mercurial. He eschews the first two top G’s in the opening verse, making the listener think that perhaps he is afraid of them, but then interpolates them with gusto in the next stanzas. Throughout he amusingly characterizes the various moods and voices of his tonsorial clients as he outlines the other services offered. He articulates the text clearly, sustains the high tessitura in the decorated passages easily and altogether produces a vocal tour de force.

Il Trovatore (Verdi) Il balen. In spite of its easy-to-absorb melody this aria is considered by most baritones to be one of the most difficult Verdi wrote, because of the demanding tessitura at the end. Bonelli sings the opening verses in an immaculate legato, manages an exciting, optional high A flat on the word tempesta and sings the final testing phrases with ease and conviction. This is really a very fine version of a very popular, but, by the less informed opera going public, technically underestimated aria.

Tannhäuser (Wagner) O du mein holder Abendstern. This is sung with a noble, warm and sympathetic tone. Bonelli has all the gravitas required for this well known aria.

Fedora (Giordano) La donna russa. The composer uses a well-known Russian folk melody ‘Kalinka’ to highlight the action and mood of this piece. Bonelli sings it at a very lively pace, and tops the aria off with a ringing high G natural that could be misconstrued as showing off, but here is both musical and effective.

Le Roi de Lahore (Massenet) Promesse de mon avenir. Massenet was surely one of the greatest melodists, and following his declaiming the semi-dramatic recitative Bonelli knows how to caress the beautiful vocal line in a refined style and excellent sustaining of vocal tone. All the climaxes are well taken and not overplayed in any way, so that this version is musically and artistically very satisfying.

Xerxes (Handel) Ombra mai fu. The pastoral mood of this music is well sustained by Bonelli , who does not overplay the vocal line, as the hero addresses the tree which gave him much needed shade. It is therefore well in keeping with the accepted style of singing what has become known as Handel’s Largo.

Die Tote Stadt (Korngold) Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen. The Pierrotlied, although not sung by the principal male character in this opera, has become a much admired baritone solo. With its highly-evocative melody and atmospheric scoring Bonelli makes much of the vocal line, which is quite demanding, and sings with a beautifully warm tone that is winning from beginning to end. In particular it is worth pointing out the gentle final cadences sung in a balanced mezza-voce that culminate in a beautifully-sustained morendo effect on the repeated word zurück. It compares favorably with famous versions by Karl Hammes, Igor Gorin, Carlo Drago-Hržic and Hermann Prey for the way he creates a highly romantic mood that borders on the exotic. Dubbed as ‘too schmaltzy’ by some purists, who possibly cannot forgive Korngold for being in his ‘teens’ when he composed the opera, and only 23 when it was first produced, this tune must rank as one of the most appealing ever.

Zazà (Leoncavallo) Zazà piccolo zingara. Surely one of the verismo composer’s most winning melodies, it is sung here with piano accompaniment only, but the full-throated outpouring of tone over a wide range covering high F sharps at the top of the stave is indeed evocative of baritones of the so-called ‘Golden Age’. The character Cascart pleads with Zazà to return to him the affection she once felt. Bonelli manages to invest the music with both passion and longing.

Hérodiade (Massenet) Vision fugitive. This is without doubt one of the best versions of this aria, This might seem an outrageous claim in view of the number of distinguished baritones of all nationalities who have left recorded legacies of this piece. Bonelli sings the dramatic recitative with careful control of dynamics, pointing to the accepted correct style in delivering Massenet’s music, which above all must include elegance. The opening phrases of the aria are sung in one breath, and, indeed, throughout the piece he demonstrates exceptional breath control with the linking of verses and the reprise of the melody. The repeated climaxes on top F sharps are sung with ease and fabulous tone and altogether this is a masterful display of his vocal talent.

Hamlet (Thomas) O vin, dissipe la tristesse. Once again Bonelli demonstrates his complete understanding of the style required in delivering French music of this period. The essence of inducing his friends to make merry is a feature of Hamlet’s famous drinking song and here the pace and joie de vivre of the occasion is captured to perfection. Full blooded tone, colourful decorated passages containing top G naturals, excellent phrasing and exhilarating pacing of the opening verse are contrasted with the more sombre, brooding middle section. As with the Hérodiade excerpt Bonelli’s French accent is good, which adds to the feeling of good taste so necessary for this musical genre.

MGM recordings  
MGM 30327 a-b The Prayer Perfect (Speaks-Riley) and Star-Eyes (Speaks-De Leeuw); M-G-M 30329 a-b The Lane to Ballybree (Speaks-Edelman) and The Road to Mandalay (Speaks-Kipling). Four fine ballads by one of the most renowned song writers of his era, they are accompanied by the MGM Orchestra on 78 rpm discs and date probably from the late 40’s or early 50’s. Although studio based they have the usual brash and somewhat boxy acoustic associated with many a film track 78 transcription issued by this company. However, Bonelli is still in fine voice, the tone rounded and firm and though the music cannot be thought to make too many demands on his range or technique, he nevertheless sings the ballads with his customary dedication to words and mood.

It should be obvious that his voice was perfectly placed and of a compass and colour to make him an outstanding Verdi baritone. His early training enabled him to encompass successfully the French repertoire vocally and stylistically, and his intelligence and musicality enabled him to sing a simple ballad with sincerity. His basic timbre seems smoother and warmer (and on disc certainly more mellifluous) than that of Leonard Warren and his operatic career was longer than Weede’s or Dickson’s. His repertoire was greater than Robert Merrill’s, who, it must be admitted, possessed a similar honeyed quality, and the evidence of Bonelli’s recordings, whether commercial or otherwise, indicate emotional intensity and strong communicative powers. His vocal technique was of a remarkably high standard, and this must surely have been of considerable benefit to all his pupils during his long years as a teacher that followed his retirement from the theatre.

Why he is not more admired by collectors is something that devotees of recorded vocal art may well ponder over for years to come.