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Cesare Siepi, Italian Bass

By March 23, 2024No Comments

Cesare 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,” Wagner’s Gurnemanz in “Parsifal” and the title role in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” He was one of the great basses of the 20th century.

Before I get to the rest of this posting, I urge you to watch Furtwängler’s film of Don Giovanni from Salzburg in 1954. Siepi sings Don Giovanni. It is probably the best Don Giovanni on record or film. Here is the link:

Bellini, La Sonnambula, “Il mulino . . .il fonte . . il bosco”

Il mulino… il fonte… il bosco…
E vicin la fattoria!…

(Vi ravviso, o luoghi ameni,
In cui lieti, in cui sereni
Sì tranquillo i dì passai
Della prima gioventù!
Cari luoghi, io vi trovai,
Ma quei dì non trovo più!)

Bellini, The Sleepwalker,, “The mill . . the spring …the forest”

The mill … the source … the forest …
And near the farm! …

(I see you, or pleasant places,
In which you are happy, in which you are peaceful
Yes quiet the days passed
Of youth!
Dear Places, I found you,
But those days I cannot find any longer!)

Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Se vuol ballare”

Se vuol ballare, signor Contino,
Il chitarrino le suonerò.
Se vuol venire nella mia scuola,
La capriola le insegnerò.
Saprò, ma piano, meglio ogni arcano

Dissimulando scoprir potrò.
L’arte schermendo, l’arte adoprando,
Di qa pungendo, di là scherzando,
Tutte le macchine rovescerò.

Mozart, Don Giovanni, “If you want to dance”

If, my dear Count, you want to dance,
It’s I who’ll call the tune.
If you’ll come to my school,
I’ll teach you the capriola
I’ll know how, but wait, better any design.

By scheming I can discover.
Shielding the art, adopting the artifice,
Stinging this way, that way joking
All your plots, I’ll overthrow.

Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Deh! Vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro,”

Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro,
Deh, vieni a consolar il pianto mio.
Se neghi a me di dar qualche ristoro,
Davanti agli occhi tuoi morir vogl’io!
Tu ch’hai la bocca dolce più del miele,
Tu che il zucchero porti in mezzo al core!
Non esser, gioia mia, con me crudele!
Lasciati almen veder, mio bell’amore!

Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Ah! Come to the window, my love”

Ah, come to window, my darling,
Ah, come and console my tears.
If you won’t give me some relief,
I will die before your eyes!
You who have a mouth sweeter than honey,
You who carries sugar in the middle of your heart!
Don’t be cruel, my joy, to me!
At least let me see you, my love!

Gounod, Faust, “Le veau d’or”

Le veau d’or est toujours debout!
On encense sa puissance,
On encense sa puissance,
D’un bout du monde à l’autre bout!
Pour fêter l’infâme idole,
Rois et peuples confondus,
Au bruit sombre des écus,
Dansent une ronde folle
Autour de son piédestale,
Autour de son piédestale!
Et Satan conduit le bal, etc, etc.

Le veau d’or est vainqueur des dieux!
Dans sa gloire dérisoire,
Dans sa gloire dérisoire,
Le monstre abject insulte aux cieux!
Il contemple – Ô rage étrange!
A ses pieds le genre humain,
Se ruant, le fer en main,
Dans le sang et dans la fange
Où brille l’ardent métal,
Où brille l’ardent métal,
Et Satan conduit le bal,etc.

Gounod, Faust, “The golden calf”

The calf of gold is still standing!
We praise his power,
We praise his power,
From one end of the world to the other end!
To celebrate the infamous idol,
Kings and the people mixed together,
To the somber sound of golden coins,
They dance a wild round
Around his pedestal
Around his pedestal
And Satan leads the dance, etc, etc.

The calf of gold is the victor over the gods!
In its derisory (absurd) glory,
In its derisory (absurd) glory,
The groveling monster insults heaven!
It contemplates, oh strange frenzy!
At his feet the human race,
Hurling itself about, sword in hand,
In blood and in the mire,
Where the burning metal gleams,
Where the burning metal gleams,
And Satan leads the dance,etc.

Cesare Siepi
February 10, 1923 – July 5, 2010)

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.

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.”

In his prime, Siepi, a natural onstage, and he was a favorite at the Metropolitan Opera, where he gave nearly 500 performances, singing 17 roles during a 23-year association.

After his first Don Giovanni at the Met in 1952, 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.

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.