Rolando Panerai, Renowned Baritone and Callas Collaborator, Dies at 95
Rolando Panerai, an Italian baritone who sang more than 150 roles at leading international opera houses, made many classic recordings and appeared frequently with the celebrated soprano Maria Callas in her prime, died on Oct. 22 just outside Florence, Italy. He was 95.
His death, at his home in the hillside town of Settignano, came after a brief illness, said the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the arts festival run under the auspices of the Florence opera, where Mr. Panerai performed for decades.
Mr. Panerai was widely admired throughout a 65-year operatic career for his full-bodied sound and the elegance of his singing. Steeped in the Italian vocal heritage, he sang with supple phrasing and evenness throughout his entire vocal range.
If not the most charismatic presence onstage, he readily conveyed authority and dramatic depth and brought a light comedic touch to the title roles of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” among many other characters.
Though his repertory was extensive, Mr. Panerai focused closely on Italian opera. Earlier in his career, he sang several German roles in Italian translation, like Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal.”
Outlining the requisite qualities of a true “Verdi baritone” in an interview earlier this year with Classical Singer magazine, Mr. Panerai essentially described his own voice: “a dark brownish tint like bronze” coupled with “the quality of the metal, which reminds us of the power and strength.”
In a 1996 interview with Bruce Duffie for WNIB, a former classical music radio station in Chicago, Mr. Panerai cautioned younger singers about being “dragged into” the characters they portray. “I am used to acting with a certain detachment or coldness,” he said. By acting that way “you can act better,” he asserted, and more effectively convey “what the composer has to say.”
His performances sounded anything but detached. On a 1955 live recording of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” a production at the Berlin State Opera conducted by Herbert von Karajan, starring Callas, Mr. Panerai holds his own in every gripping moment of the confrontation between his character, Enrico, the head of a Scottish estate in severe decline, and Callas’s Lucia, Enrico’s tormented sister, whom he is trying to force into an advantageous marriage to save the family from ruin.
Callas sounds frantic and dazed by her brother’s bullying. Yet below the surface bluster of Mr. Panerai’s Enrico, you hear the panic of a prideful young man who needs his fragile sister to rescue him.
Mr. Panerai sang often with Callas during the 1950s, the most important decade of her career, and made several treasured opera recordings with her, including versions of Bellini’s “I Puritani,” Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Puccini’s “La Bohème.” He called Callas “the greatest singer I ever listened to or worked with” in the 1996 interview.
In 1972, 16 years after the “Bohème” with Callas, Mr. Panerai recorded the role of Marcello, this time with Mirella Freni as Mimì, Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It is the “Bohème” of choice for many Puccini-lovers.
He sang one of his signature roles, Ford in “Falstaff,” on three acclaimed recordings: with Karajan conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra of London in 1956; with Leonard Bernstein leading the Vienna Philharmonic in 1966; and again with Karajan, in 1980, also leading the Vienna Philharmonic.
The critic Peter G. Davis, reviewing the last version for The New York Times, wrote that Mr. Panerai’s “dark, vibrant, firm, slightly dry tone has changed remarkably little with age, nor has his characteristic nobility of expression, incisive diction and elegant feeling for Verdian phrases deserted him.”
Rolando Panerai was born the youngest of three brothers on Oct. 17, 1924, in Campi Bisenzio, near Florence. His father, Oreste, ran a shoe factory. His mother was Ada (Paoli) Panerai. Rolando was drawn to music early. He studied at the academy in Florence, continued his training in Milan and made his stage debut in 1946 as Enrico in “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the theater in his hometown.
His career progressed steadily, with appearances at La Scala in Milan, where he became a regular, and at major houses in Europe. In 1958 he made his American debut with the San Francisco Opera, though that extended engagement proved frustrating.
While singing several favorite roles there with success, he was offered some “Falstaff” performances in Chicago during a break in his schedule. But the conductor Kurt Herbert Adler, who ran the San Francisco Opera, would not free him for the Chicago dates.
“There was so much reason to hate not only Adler, but even America,” he said in the Classical Singer interview. “It was a month I spent in inertia,” he explained. He vowed not to perform in America again. Later in his career he won acclaim appearing in the title role of “Gianni Schicchi” with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
He never appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, though he was offered some engagements early in his career. But by then he had a family and wanted to stay closer to home. His wife, Isabella (Galardi) Panerai, whom he married in 1949, died in 2008. He is survived by a daughter, Raffaella; a son, Riccardo Panerai; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
He continued to sing, as well as coach and, in later years, direct operas, through his 70s. In 2011, at 87, he sang the title role of “Gianni Schicchi” in Genoa. Mr. Panerai attributed his longevity to sensible work habits, giving up smoking in his 20s and eating a Mediterranean diet.
He advised younger singers to focus on their artistry and not obsess about a career. “It is best to sing well and not become bigheaded,” he said in 1996. “The rest comes all by itself.”
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