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Rolando Panerai - An obituary

The celebrated veteran Italian baritone Rolando Panerai (17 October 1924 – 23 October 2019) has died aged 95 following an international career spanning an astonishing 65 years. Born in Campi Bisenzio, near Florence, he made his stage debut in 1946; when only in his twenties, he made a series of broadcast recordings for RAI to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death and by the early 1950’s was already singing on major stages such as La Scala. His Amonasro in the 1951 RAI Aida under Gui was probably his first commercial recording; he was still making studio recordings fully forty years later, when he sang Falstaff for Colin Davis, and in the year 2000, when he was seventy-five, as Germont he was still the best thing in Mehta’s La traviata, filmed on location in Paris.

His baritone was characterised by a smooth legato and an elegant, instantly recognisable timbre. He sang only in Italian but had 150 roles in his repertoire, including those by Donizetti, Verdi and Puccin. Despite his undoubted dramatic flair, he could occasionally sound too avuncular to portray the Big Bad Boys entirely successfully; however, his special gift for comic timing and inflection in combination with great ease and flexibility also allowed him to excel in Italian buffo and comic Mozartian roles. He even sang Wagner in Italian, as per his Amfortas alongside Callas and Christoff in a 1950 RAI broadcast of Parsifal. He continued singing buffo (bass-)baritone roles like Malatesta, Dulcamara and Gianni Schicchi into his late eighties; indeed, he last sang the latter as recently as 2011 in his own staging in Genoa. In addition to his numerous international stage appearances in venues such as Salzburg – where he was a favourite - and Vienna, he appeared in all the big Italian houses and many European festivals; he also made several films, including the above-mentioned Germont and Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere d Siviglia in its first ever television broadcast in 1954, conducted by Giulini.

Panerai’s baritone was not as dark and sumptuous as that of his contemporary Bastianini, who was born two years earlier but died over half a century before him; he had a leaner, lighter, drier sound with a rather fast vibrato like the voices of Gobbi or Taddei (who died at 94 in 2010) but his technique must have been excellent, given that it permitted him to sing so well for so long. Collectors will know him best from a trio of classic Karajan recordings: as Ford in Falstaff, Guglielmo in Cos?fan tutte and Marcello in La boh鑝e - though apparently Panerai himself preferred his performance in the 1965 film he made with Karajan, while others might instead turn to the 1955 Votto studio recording with Callas, where he sounds little different from the Decca recording made eighteen years later. One might reasonably add to the list of his best performance his Enrico in the famous 1955 live recording of Lucia di Lammermoor, also conducted by Karajan and starring Callas, whom he frequently partnered alongside Di Stefano, both on stage and in the studio. In addition, he recorded Ford three times for three different Falstaffs, each time with distinction.

Panerai will be remembered not just for the exceptional longevity of his career but for the sheer, sustained quality and beauty of his singing over that time; he was in many ways the last of the Old School.

Ralph Moore

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