Cesare Siepi, the renowned Italian bass acclaimed for his vocally suave, swashbuckling portrayal of Mozart's Don Giovanni, died at 87. Siepi was a classic Italian basso cantante, or "singing bass", with a warm, slightly dark voice that was ideally suited to Mozart. Yet his voice was so robust that he could easily summon the power for Verdi's King Philip II in "Don Carlo", "Parsifal" and the title role in Mussorgsky’s "Boris Godunov."
Cesare Siepi, Renowned Italian Opera Singer, Dies at 87
The New York Times; By Anthony Tommasini; July 6, 2010
Cesare Siepi, the renowned Italian bass acclaimed for his vocally suave, swashbuckling portrayal of Mozart's Don Giovanni, died on Monday in Atlanta, where he had lived for 25 years. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Louellen, who said he had been in failing health.
Mr. Siepi (pronounced see-EP-ee) was a classic Italian basso cantante, or "singing bass", with a warm, slightly dark voice that was ideally suited to Mozart. Yet his voice was so robust that he could easily summon the power for Verdi's King Philip II in "Don Carlo", Wagner’s Gurnemanz in "Parsifal" and the title role in Mussorgsky’s "Boris Godunov."
In his prime, the tall, handsome Mr. Siepi, a natural onstage, was a favorite at the Metropolitan Opera, where he gave nearly 500 performances, singing 17 roles during a 23-year association.
His Met debut in 1950, in Verdi’s "Don Carlo", a new production that opened Rudolf Bing's first season as general manager, was last-minute, and it saved the day. Congress had just passed an act that prohibited visas to anyone associated with a totalitarian party. The Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, scheduled to sing Philip, was denied a visa for reasons the government would not specify. Mr. Siepi, an anti-Fascist who had fled Italy during World War II to live in Switzerland, flew to New York to take Christoff’s place.
“Even with a quick clearance, he missed the first rehearsals," Bing wrote in his 1972 memoir, "5,000 Nights at the Opera". But "he did come," Bing added, "and made an overpowering debut and a well-deserved great career at the Metropolitan".
After his first Don Giovanni at the Met in 1952, Mr. Siepi became the Giovanni of choice in houses around the world, bringing a sly blend of vocal refinement and animal magnetism to his portrayal. Critics and audiences embraced him for a wide range of roles.
Assessing an impressive Gurnemanz in a 1970 "Parsifal" at the Met, the critic Herbert Weinstock wrote in the British magazine Opera that Mr. Siepi "really sang the role rather than growling it and acted with touching conviction", articulating Wagner’s words "as if born to them".
He also excelled in broadly comic roles, like Don Basilio in Rossini’s "Barber of Seville".
For some, Mr. Siepi’s artistry, though distinguished, lacked enough daring. Peter G. Davis summed up this concern in an entry on Mr. Siepi for the 1992 New Grove Dictionary of Opera. He "could always be relied on for intelligent, consistently professional performances, rather than interpretations of arresting artistic individuality," Mr. Davis wrote.
Cesare Siepi was born in Milan on Feb. 10, 1923. His father was an accountant; his family loved music but was not musical. As an adolescent he sang publicly in a madrigal group. Initially he took courses to become a schoolteacher, though he had some training at the conservatory in Milan.
At 18, urged on by friends, he entered a voice competition in Florence and won first prize. A manager in the audience quickly engaged him to sing the role of the hired assassin Sparafucile in Verdi’s "Rigoletto" for a production in Schio, near Vicenza.
With the outbreak of war he moved to neutral Switzerland, returning to Italy when hostilities ended. He appeared in Verdi’s "Nabucco" at La Scala in Milan in the first postwar production at the reconstructed theater, which had been damaged by bombs.
After his breakthrough Met debut, Mr. Siepi was in demand internationally. He scored triumphs at the Salzburg Festival during the 1950s and made several live recordings there, including a 1954 "Don Giovanni" conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Erna Berger among the cast.
In 1955, at his peak, he made classic Decca recordings of Mozart’s "Nozze di Figaro" with the conductor Erich Kleiber, and of "Don Giovanni" with the conductor Josef Krips, both conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
Louellen Sibley was a ballet dancer at the Met when she married Mr. Siepi 48 years ago. He is also survived by a son, Marco, of Saronno, Italy; a daughter, Luisa Siepi of New York; and two grandchildren.
In his day Mr. Siepi was considered a natural successor to Ezio Pinza. Like Pinza, who had starred in "South Pacific," Mr. Siepi appeared in a stage musical, "Bravo Giovanni." The critic Howard Taubman, writing in The New York Times, praised Mr. Siepi for bringing "the richest and best cultivated vocal instrument to Broadway" since Pinza.....
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