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Burnished bass

There are some singers that grab a hold of you from the very first time you hear them, turn you into a rabid fan, inform you of art at the highest level as you know it, and mark you for life. I clearly remember the day I first heard the voice of Cesare Siepi

In 1984, the then-new recorded format of the CD revolution was already firmly under way. Music shops were beginning to issue massive bins full of LP cutouts. Operatic treasures for a few bucks. Having begun my opera-listening career full-force the previous year, and spending practically all my extra money on collecting recordings, the LP cutouts gave me the opportunity to have more, for less.

Many’s the time I didn’t even know the artist or the work I was buying; I often took a “Hmm, this looks interesting” approach, and would just take chances on a purchase.

The album I selected at Discount Records on this particular shopping day was Siepi’s 1954 operatic recital, which was then issued in London/Decca’s low budget Treasury Series.

The first track I listened to was from Verdi’s Nabucco, Zaccaria’s *preghiera,* “Vieni o Levita… Tu sul labbro.”

I had never before taken much of a liking to operatic basses; so many of them sounded superannuated and effortful, throaty in tone, and often just plain guttural.

Therefore, I was genuinely startled when I heard Siepi’s singing in this aria.  The tone was truly what they call, in that over-used word, “burnished,” of a most beautiful, mellow, and resonant quality. The sappy, rich timbre, buzzy with a halo of vibrancy, sounded to me of having a distinctive instrumental quality – like the most finely produced singing tone of a cello – a human voice could have.  Hues of Florentine gold, Burgundian velvet, and rich mahogany all blended together.

At 3:33, “E di canti e canti a te sacrati” is taken all in one breath, and phrase endings are elegantly tapered. Prior to this at 3:27, hear the way he fines down the word ‘mio’ without crooning or whitening the color. The legato throughout is simply flawless.

I distinctly recall the point of being wowed, at 4:04, at the line “sovra gl’idoli, spezzati,” the latter word in which he takes from the B above the staff to one octave down, in the smoothest, transition. Then at 4:42, the high E at “sorgera” is taken with the most easy, supple grace, followed by a beautifully negotiated, short scalar descent.

I skipped the needle back repeatedly at those phrases, fairly incredulous at how singing could be so resplendently *gorgeous.* This rendition is the outright winner amongst all recorded documents. No other bass matches this supreme instance of the finest Verdian singing and phrasing.

I played that album, which consisted of more Verdi, plus Meyerbeer, Gomes, and Halévy, for months – years.  I literally wore it out. Revisiting it remains a kind of pilgrimage experience.

That started a multiple-decade collection of everything and anything I could find on Siepi. If he was on the recording, I acquired it. Complete operas, vocal collections, I simply had to have it. Commercial, studio, live, used, bootleg, I bought them all. When his film of Don Giovanni was released to VHS and at last I could see a visual of one of his most celebrated roles, “excited” doesn’t even begin to suffice.

Pirate companies offered precious rare documents of his Voice of Firestone and other assorted TV appearances.  YouTube, though, has provided the most valuable number of profuse testaments to his versatility, longevity, and durability (he last sang Fiesco in 1986!)

I spent hours perusing the music library for articles, interviews, and reviews on Siepi (yeah, opera people are obsessed nuts, and I count myself happily in their company). The copy-machine assisted me in having these documents for my ever-growing files. Of particular value were two articles, written by him in the 1950s, that were featured in the now-defunct magazine Etude.  In these, he held forth precisely, in detail, of his vocal production and technique.

Further, I learned about the man himself, insofar as I could. A true, serious scholar dedicated to his work. Private, circumspect, and totally averse to the whole “star” aspect, refusing to publicly disclose too much of himself. Nor did he hold forth with expansive self-importance.

Post-career, he lived a quiet life in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, declining interviews or indulging in the endless series of next-to-last Abschieds and tributes that seem to occur with many retiring opera singers.  There was never any official retirement date announced or event-formalized; he just exited quietly away from the last stage door in 1989.  The career lasted 48 years.

Those restrictions to interviews extended to me, as well. After I finished my book on Edita Gruberova, I was ready, early-1990s, to start another, and one on Siepi seemed like the logical follow-up.  My mission was simple: Siepi was one of opera’s most outstanding and important artists, and I thought for sure there needed to be a complete musical biography to definitively, for posterity, be written and published.

By some way of which I don’t recall, I secured the telephone number of his agent, Nelly Walter. I explained to her my intents and purposes, and would she help me get a hold of him? “Meestair Siepi is no lonker ahkteev,” she told me in her charming accent, but was most intrigued at my proposal, and she agreed of the need of a book on him. Finally, she gave me not just his address, but his phone number.  A bit of a jolt, that…

I did not expect that it would be so easy to contact him. I suddenly became more than a little cowed at the prospect of actually speaking to *the* bass god – was I getting in way over my head? Probably, but several days later, I finally mustered up the courage to dial Siepi’s number.

He answered almost immediately. It was a bit surreal at first, actually speaking to an artist I had so grown to revere.  But there was nothing “grand” about his manner at all. I explained the reason why I was calling, and that his agent had given me his number. The first thing I noticed, besides his distinctive continental accent, was that his speaking voice bore little resemblance to the singing counterpart.

I have noticed many operatic basses tend to exaggerate the “bassiness” of their speaking voices, almost deliberately “playing up” the sonority of their tone, and this gives a rather monochromatic semblance to their level of expression. Not with Siepi. His speaking voice had no trace of lumbering fogginess, having instead a more baritonal tinge to it, and it was-on-the-breath spun, lively, colorful, expressively natural and vibrant.

Alas, as to my proposal, he told me, politely, but firmly, “Absolutely not, I’m sorry to say. I appreciate your offer, but I am simply not interested.  If anyone wants to know about me, the recorded documentation is there, but beyond that, I don’t feel I warrant interest as a subject for a book.” He thanked me very graciously, though, and his manner was that of an old-world gentleman.  In hindsight, I think this response owed to an innate modesty in his being.

Crestfallen, hopes dashed.  More than anything, I simply wanted the chance to write about his artistic excellence and hold forth at length on all that. I wondered if I had specifically stated that I was interested in a musical biography, with discussions of roles, vocal technique, and all that was related to being an artist in opera, if he might have considered working with me. I felt a sort of duty to honor his stature in the high esteem in which he was held.

An opportunity, though. rather fortuitously and to me of serendipitous synchronicity, sprung up not too long after that, when I was writing for *The Opera Quarterly.* A CD, put out by Myto, which was a compilation of nearly 80 minutes of his best work (from multiple labels) containing many of my favorite recordings of Siepi’s, was released around that time.

I begged my editor to let me review it, a wish that was granted, and I took the opportunity to say, within the confines of an (albeit generous) article, much I had mainly wanted to express, and I poured all that un-contained effusiveness into it.

After the review was published in January of 1995, I had a brainstorming idea. I still had Siepi’s address that Nelly Walter had provided, so I sent him a copy of the publication with my review. I explained to Mr. Siepi that being afforded the opportunity to write about his art had in a significant way been fulfilled in doing this article, and that I hoped he would enjoy it. And I couldn’t help but add, if he ever changed his mind about doing a book…I frankly didn’t expect a reply back.

Lo, and behold, though, a couple of weeks later, I received this gracious note from him:

A few days after that arrived… a phone call. Mr. Siepi wanted to be sure I had received his note of thanks, and his tone, where it was previously a bit formal, was now warmer, and gracious. I sensed he felt that the note was inadequate in its expression (hardly). He told me that I had elaborated upon and understood of his singing in a way that he had rarely encountered in a review, and cited my understanding in particular of his vocal technique.

He also told me he did not like reading the majority of reviews, because he felt that many of them were under-informed and often lazy, opting for vague generalities. With that, he expressed thanks and appreciation for writing the article, and for taking the time to send it to him.

I was, frankly, overwhelmed.

There is nothing like the feeling of garnering return appreciation by an artist you esteem and admire.  Of all the experiences I have had in writing about opera, this one is just about at the top of the list in both gratitude and being appreciated for my endeavors.

It was Siepi’s words about critics, though, that lingered. Reviews, both of live performances and recordings, I found throughout the years, *were* often frustratingly generalized, insufficient in scope, sometimes indeed even dismissive.  (But then my bias is that I don’t think Ezio Pinza or Boris Christoff are as special as they are made out to be).

Typical is the oft-quoted Peter G. Davis summation from the Grove dictionary: “With a strikingly handsome presence on stage, and a pleasantly warm, pliant, evenly schooled voice, he could always be counted on for intelligent, consistent, professional performances rather than interpretations of arresting artistic individuality.”

In no way is this a dismissive slight; but it is a clearly insufficient and incomplete summation of one of the greatest basses of the 20th century. A short description simply will not do.

Let’s fill in the blanks and start with the voice.

Largely self-taught, with a background in madrigal singing in his teens, Siepi utilized the most ideally-produced tonal placement, one that was audibly evident.  With a range that spanned over two and a half octaves (from roughly the second C below the middle to the G above), it was evenly produced throughout, with the tone flowing easily on the breath.

The production of the tone was clearly high-space-maximized in the resonating cavities, rather than emitting low and laryngeally – as in many basses who sound throaty. This gave him the capacity for an outstanding *cantabile* quality to his phrasing, and the dynamic sonority producing an unblemished, supple, legato line.

Vowels were always of the utmost purity and integrity, and he never had to modify them in any part of the range. The strong, firm subterranean lows had the same ease as the soaring, ringing highs. Siepi had full control of his voice, with tremendous resources of technical security at his disposal, and rarely ever showed effort or strain in negotiating his music.

Siepi was a true rarity in Italian singers of his time in that he mastered multiple languages and styles. It was expected that he would undertake the usual classic Italian bass roles – Zaccaria, Fiesco, Silva, Sparafucile (his debut role in 1941, when he was 18), Colline, Alvise, Mefistofele, Basilio, Filippo, Conte Rodolfo, Giorgio, Oroveso, Padre Guardiano, Raimondo, Ramfis, Mosé, Archibaldo, Enrico VIII, Baldassare, Simon Mago, Marin Falliero, plus Figaro and Don Giovanni.

He also offered a marvelously Gallic Méphistophélès in Faust. Dosifey in an Italian language Khovanschina, as well as Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Cardinal de Brogni, plus Sarastro and Boris Godunov, both in English.  Roger in Verdi’s Jerusalem in 1986.

The true surprise came in the 1970s, when he learned, in German, the long role of Gurnemanz in Parsifal for the Metropolitan Opera, a portrayal remembered with great fondness by opera aficionados. But Siepi had already had a couple of decades doing German Lieder in his recitals, in addition to French chanson.

In an unusual feat in the “crossover” category, Siepi recorded an album of Cole Porter songs; though unmistakably operatic in quality, the songs were marvelously vocalized, and he succeeded in capturing the essence of them remarkably well – plus, he imparted the proper romantic and sensual aspects inherent in some of the lyrics and melodies.

There were a couple of Broadway excursions in lackluster material that flopped, although Siepi garnered favorable reviews.  With his tall, dark, good looks and lively manner, he cut a fine figure in any format.

The glaring omission in his roster of roles is that of Procida in I vespri siciliani. When the Metropolitan Opera mounted a new production of the opera in 1974, it seemed inevitable that Siepi would be in the cast. However, Schuyler Chapin, the general director at the time, passed Siepi by and cast the young Justino Diaz instead.

This was also the time when many other long-standing Met veterans were assigned lesser roles and were being nudged out of the picture. Siepi, understandably outraged, swore the Met off for good, and refused to give permission for the company to issue any of their archival recordings where he was in the cast.

The recording career foundered, too. After his contract with Decca was up in the early 1960s, there was only one more complete recording: as Archibaldo in Montemezzi’s L’Amore dei tre re for RCA in 1976.  Nicolai Ghiaurov and Ruggero Raimondi got the majority of the projects.

One can’t imagine how Raimondi (dry and brown of tone), and not Siepi (whose Filippo has never been on a commercial release) got the assignment in Giulini’s 1970 recording of Don Carlo. Or why he wasn’t considered for Fiesco for Abbado’s landmark recording of Simon Boccanegra. So many opportunities were missed to further capture his versatility and solid presence.

But let us focus on the numerous examples that do exist as I present some of my favorite Siepi moments (a list that was really difficult to pare down to essentials).

One of his earliest captured documents was from a performance of La favorita from Mexico City in 1949. Here at age 26 you can hear the smooth, sappy beauty of tone in “Splendon piu belle in ciel le stelle”:

Don Giovanni was perhaps Siepi’s most highly celebrated role. Fortunately, his assumption was preserved on film in the mid-1950s by Paul Czinner.  In this clip, leading up to “Deh, vieni alla finestra, one can observe the physical ease and dashing charm that reveals his fine acting ability, and the sensual, romantic manner in which this serenade is sung:

The tormented king Filippo from Don Carlo was a Siepi specialty. In this 1954 recording of “Ella giammai m’amo” Siepi is all music, letting the reduced dynamics of his beautiful *mezza voce* and the somber underlying accompaniment tell the story in a touchingly simple, but direct, way.

Notice how he doesn’t croon the opening, nor does he resort to chewing on the words self-consciously with gimmicky “interpretive” effects, a habit many basses are prone to doing to “telegraphically signify” an emotion. The Verdian line is unfussy, majestic, and quietly commanding.

Though Siepi never got to sing the role of Procida, he sung the aria “O tu Palermo” on occasion, as here on TV for The Voice of Firestone in the 1950s.  What is unusual about this clip is that it shows, in close proximity to the microphone, the almost overpowering, resonant buzz in the tone; this must have reverberated through the theater quite effectively:

In 1967 Siepi gave a concert in New Jersey in which he sang Wotan’s Farewell.  His singing is of molten gold, an unparalleled luxury in this music, and the German is surprisingly clear and well-articulated:

Also a rare happenstance is having an Italianate tone in the role of Gurnemanz:

Though the Verdi Requiem with Toscanini is highly renowned and esteemed, I actually prefer Siepi’s work on the (devastatingly moving) Victor DeSabata recording of 1951. Here, Siepi gives a masterful performance of “Confutatis maledictis,” coping superbly well with the conductor’s slower tempo. “Oro supplex et acclinis” is intoned with mournful poignancy. At 3:29 he takes the difficult phrase on the word ‘gere,’ held on a B for 8 beats, then ascending to a high E, then descending to the finish of the line, all on one breath.

In another clip from The Voice of Firestone, Siepi does here a beautiful rendition, full of romantic yearning and longing, in “One Alone,” from Romberg’s The Desert Song:

Méphistophélès in Faust has Siepi full of gleeful verve in “Le veau d’or,”an assumption that has rarely been matched to the present day:

Boito’s devil, Mefistofele, shows Siepi’s inky, strong tone utilized ideally in “Ecco il mondo,” ending with a superb high F:

One of the finest renditions ever of Count Rodolfo’s peerless aria “Vi ravviso” is had in Siepi’s 1952 recording. This is sung with beautiful, flowing grace, full of nostalgic longing, and gentlemanly dignity. He follows the slurs in the score where many ignore them:

Also unmatched is Siepi’s Padre Guardiano, recorded complete in 1955. Here is “Il santo nome,” which offers his suave, serene, rock-solid handling of the line:

Siepi shows off his comic timing in Basilio’s “La calunnia,” showing real zest and flair in his physical and vocal antics:

Three songs that demonstrate how effective Siepi was in scaling down his tone for an intimate mood:

Lully’s “Bois Epais”:

Tosti’s “L’Ultimo canzone”:

Schumann’s “Du bist wie eine blume”:

Finally, here is his last Fiesco in 1986, from Napoli, singing “Il lacerato spirito,” 45 years after his career began, exhibiting still, the classic Siepi sound:

Siepi had voice, talent, acting ability, and looks: no wonder, among opera connoisseurs and other basses, he is still the one held in the highest esteem and affection.