Alessandro Bonci’s father was a comb-maker and his family was poor: even though he became a chorister in the local church at the early age of seven, he later started work as an apprentice boot maker. With the help of several friends however, sufficient money was raised to enable him to enter the Rossini Conservatory at Pesaro, where he studied singing with Felice Coen and Carlo Pedrotti for five years. This was followed by further study at the Paris Conservatoire with the distinguished baritone Enrico delle Sedie, to whom Bonci credited his polished technique. Returning to Italy, he served as a principal tenor at the Loreto Basilica before making his operatic debut in 1896 as Fenton / Falstaff in Parma. The following year Bonci appeared as Arturo / I puritani in Genoa and was swiftly invited to appear in the same role shortly thereafter at La Scala, Milan, as well as in the first performances of Franchetti’s Signor di Pourceaugnac.
He quickly established himself as one of Italy’s leading tenors, with performances at Naples, Trieste and many other regional opera houses. He made his debut at Rome in 1901 as the Duke / Rigoletto and returned there regularly until 1923 to sing numerous roles, including Ernesto / Don Pasquale, Fernando / La favorita, Gennaro / Lucrezia Borgia, Nemorino / L’elisir d’amore, Riccardo / Un ballo in maschera and Rodolfo / La Bohème. Local success was matched by international triumph, with performances at Barcelona (1898–1901, 1903–1904), Berlin, Lisbon (1899–1900, 1903–1904), Madrid (1902–1903, 1905–1906), St Petersburg and Vienna.
Bonci’s London debut was at Covent Garden in 1900 as Rodolfo. The Times wrote of his singing: ‘… he displayed a true tenor voice which he uses like a genuine artist, singing with the proper emotional colour and with a perfect command of tone.’ He returned to Covent Garden in 1903 and 1908, singing the Duke / Rigoletto, Edgardo / Lucia di Lammermoor and Count Almaviva / Il barbiere di Siviglia; and in 1905 sang Elvino / La sonnambula at the Waldorf Theatre in London. At this time Bonci’s principal rival Caruso was singing at Covent Garden, and The Times highlighted their key individual qualities thus: ‘…if Signor Caruso’s voice is rather more powerful, Signor Bonci’s is sweeter in quality, while both are admirable actors.’
At the end of 1906 Bonci made his American debut, singing Arturo at the Manhattan Opera House. Excellent reviews resulted in the offer of a contract from the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut as the Duke / Rigoletto in November 1907. While Caruso established an unrivalled dominance as the company’s leading tenor, Bonci was recognised as one of the company’s principal artists, excelling as Almaviva, Edgardo, Alfredo / La traviata, Don Ottavio / Don Giovanni, Lionel / Martha and Wilhelm Meister / Mignon. He appeared in 1909 at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, followed by what was to be his final season at the Met, in 1909–1910, when he added Cavaradossi / Tosca to his repertoire. After an extensive concert tour of the USA he returned to South America during 1911 to appear at Buenos Aires and in the inaugural season at the Teatro Municipal, São Paulo.
In 1914 Bonci’s contract to sing with the Chicago Opera had to be interrupted to permit his return to Italy on the outbreak of World War I, during which he served in the Italian air force while occasionally being given leave to appear in opera performances in Italy. After the end of the war, he returned to Buenos Aires (1918) and Chicago (1919–1920). Bonci toured the USA between 1920 and 1922 and made his final visit there in 1924, teaching as well as performing on this occasion. The following year he entered semi-retirement (even though he had enjoyed great success as Riccardo in Rome during 1923), teaching in Milan while also occasionally returning to the stage, for instance that of La Scala in 1926.
Bonci was the product of an exact training based upon particular methods of vocal technique. For instance the use of open vowel-sounds in the upper range at times resulted in a timbre which may sound ‘white’ to modern ears; but set against this are Bonci’s superb sense of phrasing, great dynamic control and effortless vocal production, which may be heard in his numerous recordings. In essence he was a late representative of a school of singing that placed elegance, proportion and control above the naked display of emotion. He recorded mainly in the acoustic recording process, for the Edison Company (which produced excellent-sounding cylinder recordings), for the disc-based Fonotipia company between 1905 and 1907, and for Columbia between 1912 and 1913, as well as a few electrically recorded sides (for Columbia once again) in 1926. Bonci’s Fonotipia recordings are generally considered to capture him at his best, as by 1910 his voice had begun to decline in quality.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist