Alessandro Bonci (1870-1940) was a renowned lyric tenor who appeared in major international theaters during his 30 year career. Born in the northern Italian town of Cesena, he grew up in poverty, beginning his working life as a bootmakerâ€™s apprentice. Bonci sang in local choirs from an early age, attracting attention for his alto voice. At 18, he applied for admission to Pesaroâ€™s Rossini Conservatory, reportedly making the 45 mile journey on foot! He received a scholarship and studied with Tamagnoâ€™s teacher, Carlo Pedrotti. One of Bonciâ€™s few professional engagements during his student days was in the choir of The Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto. Upon the death of celebrated tenor Giuseppe Capponi, the 19 year old Bonci assumed the post of principal tenor with the choir. The salary of nearly 40,000 lire per month gave a boost to the impoverished studentâ€™s finances. Following Pedrottiâ€™s retirement in 1893, Bonci began working with Felice Coen and later with Enrico Delle Sedie in Paris.
Bonciâ€™s official debut was as Fenton in Falstaff at Parmaâ€™s Teatro Regio on January 25, 1896. The tenorâ€™s success was tremendous, and he took Italy by storm with appearances in Milan, Rome and Bologna. His La Scala debut took place on April 10, 1897 as Eraste in the world premiere of Franchettiâ€™s comic opera Il Signor di Pourceaugnac. Appearances in Warsaw, St. Petersburg, London, Barcelona, Lisbon and Buenos Aires followed, with Bonciâ€™s North American debut occurring on December 3, 1906 as Arturo in I Puritani at Hammersteinâ€™s Manhattan Opera House. Bonci became a favorite of New York audiences and the press hailed him as a worthy rival of Caruso...despite a very public scandal that was brewing. Bonci, who was a married man with four children, reportedly eloped with the teenage daughter of a close friend. The tenor faced charges of abduction of a minor but maintained his innocence all along. Bonciâ€™s defense was that the two had been for a ride in the country when the girl professed her love for him. â€œWhat was I to do?â€, explained Bonci. â€œIt is the fate of the artist who wins fameâ€. The tenor also claimed that Carusoâ€™s associates had cooked up the tale to divert the publicâ€™s attention away from the great Neapolitan, whose own scandal at the Brooklyn Zoo was making headlines. This explanation falls apart when one realizes that Bonciâ€™s scandal first became public in Italy in the fall of 1905â€¦well before Carusoâ€™s peccadillo! Bonci managed to keep the details of the affair relatively quiet and settled out of court with the girlâ€™s parents.
The Met lured Bonci away from Hammerstein and the tenor made his debut there as the Duke in Rigoletto on November 22, 1907. During his three seasons with the company, Bonci sang fourteen operas, including La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Elisir dâ€™Amore, Don Pasquale, Barbiere di Siviglia, Don Giovanni, La BohÃ¨me, Tosca, Faust, Mignon, Martha, La Traviata and the U.S. premiere of Le Villi. His final Met performance was as the Duke during a company tour in Louisville on April 30, 1910. Following his departure from The Met, Bonci undertook a concert tour, with appearances in Boston, Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburg, Nashville and other U.S. cities. Although the tenorâ€™s career was interrupted by WWI, he returned to the U.S. at the warâ€™s end to resume his activities. During the 1920s, Bonciâ€™s public appearances were becoming sparse and by 1924 he had opened a singing school in New York. In 1926, he returned to Barcelonaâ€™s Liceu to sing Ballo in Maschera and gave his final stage performance in the same opera at Milanâ€™s Teatro Carcano the following year. A Verdi Requiem followed at his hometown theater in September, after which Bonci bid farewell to the public (although he occasionally appeared in recital as late as 1937). The aging tenor divided his time between his New York and Milan voice studios, but eventually returned to Italy for good. Bonci died at his villa in Rimini on August 10, 1940 at age 70.
Alessandro Bonci enjoyed a stellar career that took him to major opera centers of Europe and the Americas. His repertoire of over 30 roles included such works as Fra Diavolo, Manon, Les PÃªcheurs de Perles, Mefistofele, Il Matrimonio Segreto, La Fanciulla del West, Lucrezia Borgia. La Favorita, Lodoletta and Loreley. His legacy of over 125 discs made for Fonotipia, Columbia and Edison between 1905 and 1926, reveal an outstanding singer with a caressing voice and an easy top. Although the rapid vibrato may not agree with modern listeners, the tenorâ€™s impeccable artistry and expert facility with florid singing demonstrate why he was celebrated as the ideal interpreter of 19th century Bel Canto.
Here, Bonci sings â€œTu che a Dio spiegasti lâ€™aliâ€ from Donizettiâ€™s Lucia di Lammermoor. This recording was made for the Fonotipia label in Milan on July 5, 1906.