With Rolando Panerai we lose a star of opera that we will not see the like of again, and many of his performances have shaped the history of La Scala’s opera house.
La Scala left these words today, reflecting on the career of the great baritone, who died on Tuesday at 95.
Maybe some of Panerai’s most memorable performances at La Scala were in Lucia di Lammermoor with Callas and Karajan in 1954; Così fan tutte conducted by Cantelli at the Piccola Scala in 1955; Falstaff with Karajan, Gobbi and Schwarzkopf in 1957; La bohème, again with Karajan and with Freni and Raimondi; as well as the roles under the baton of Gavazzeni, Butterfly and Simon Boccanegra.
However, early music and lesser-known works also featured in his repertoire at La Scala, where he sang extensively throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, and it was there that he forged a long-lasting partnership with conductor Nino Sanzogno.
Panerai’s commitment to contemporary and modern music was notable: Paul Hindemith, Luciano Chailly, Sergei Prokofiev, Kurt Weill, Ferruccio Busoni, Jacopo Napoli, and Ernst Bloch.
He made his debut at La Scala in 1952 as High Priest of Dagon in Samson and Delilah. Victor de Sabata was conducting and Fedora Barbieri and Ramón Vinay were in the title roles. The same year he sang Sharpless in Madama Butterfly, again with De Sabata
In 1953, he returned as Marcello in La bohème (with De Sabata, Rosanna Carteri, Giuseppe Di Stefano) and Masetto in Don Giovanni with Herbert von Karajan. Again with von Karajan in 1953, he sang in Carmina Burana with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The same year saw him in Massenet’s Manon with Antonino Votto, Jacopo Napoli’s Masaniello with Nino Sanzogno and Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Carlo Maria Giulini.
In 1954 came the famous Lucia di Lammermoor with Karajan, Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano, which also toured to Berlin and Vienna. In the same year, there was also a Nozze di Figaro with Karajan and Schwarzkopf, Menotti’s Amelia al ballo with Margherita Carosio, once again with Callas in Gluck’s Alceste with Giulini, Alfano’s Cyrano with Votto and Busoni’s Arlecchino conducted by Mitropoulos.
Then in 1955 came Zeffirelli’s production of L’elisir d’amore conducted by Giulini, Mussorgsky’s The Fair at Sorochyntsi with Gavazzeni, and the well-known Così fan tutte at the Piccola Scala conducted by Cantelli with Schwarzkopf, Alva, and Merriman.
Once more he was Musetto in Don Giovanni in 1956 with Otto Ackermann and again in Elisir with Sanzogno; in 1957 came The Fiery Angel with Sanzogno in Giorgio Strehler’s production, Niccolò Piccinni’s La Cecchina o sia la buona figliuola, again with Sonzogno and Ford in Falstaff with Karajan, as well as Donizetti’s Il campanello.
His partnership with Sanzogno continued in 1958, with Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Mathias the Painter), Il conte Ory as well as Cecchina again, and another Sharpless with Gavazzeni. 1959 saw a La bohème with Votto, Don Pasquale with Sanzogno, La sposa venduta with von Matačić, Mortari’s La scuola delle mogli with Bartoletti, and Hansel and Gretel with Votto.
The 1960s began with Cimarosa’s Le astuzie femminili and Bloch’s Macbeth, both with Sanzogno. In 1961 he sang in Paisiello’s Nina o sia la pazza per amore, Respighi’s Maria Egiziaca and Così fan tutte (all with Sanzogno) as well as Madama Butterfly and Pizzetti’s Il calzare d’argento with Gavazzeni. Then in 1962, he was Ford with Votto, and sang in Handel’s Serse with Pietro Bellugi and Donizetti’s Campanello dello speziale with Sanzogno at the Piccola Scala. Sanzogno again conducted when he sang in Busoni’s Turandot, Così fan tutte and Il buon soldato Svejk by Guido Turchi.
1963 saw Panerai in Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Scherchen, and Franco Zeffirelli’s new production of his now famous La bohème (still seen today) with Karajan and Mirella Freni and Gianni Raimondi. There was another Butterfly with Gavazzeni, and then he was back with Carteri, Barbieri and Piero Bellugi at the Piccola Scala for Renzo Rossellini’s Il linguaggio dei fiori. Luciano Chailly’s new work Era proibito with Sanzogno, closed the year.
Although he was now a well-known star, Panerai continued to sing Masetto, which he did in 1963 conducted by Scherchen and with Ghiaurov, Price, Schwarzkopf and Freni. There was also Ford with Sanzogno and David in L’amico Fritz which opened the season under the baton of Gavazzeni. In 1964 he was Bill in Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Sanzogno and Strehler. It was followed by L’elisir d’amore (Sanzogno) Dandini in La Cenerentola (Gavazzeni and Giulietta Simionato), as well as La bohème (Karajan).
Butterfly appeared again the following year (Sanzogno), and conducted by Gavazzeni, Panerai sang Paolo Albani in Simon Boccanegra with Guelfi and Ghiaurov. His long-lasting relationship with Sanzogno continued with La bohème in 1967, 1968 and 1969, sometimes with Freni and Raimondi, but also with Mietta Sighele and Luciano Pavarotti. In 1967 there was the return of Falstaff with Votto, and in 1969 Panerai was Lescaut in Manon conducted by Peter Maag with Freni and Pavarotti.
1971 saw Nino Verchi conducting him in Manon and Bohème and there was a performance of Figaro in Barbiere with Claudio Abbado. In 1972 at the Piccola Scala came Il campanello dello speziale with Luciano Rosada, and in 1973 he was Malatesta in Don Pasquale conducted by Bellugi with Ganzarolli, Kraus and Guglielmi. Cimarosa’s Il marito disperato was at the Piccola Scala in 1974 with Pierluigi Urbini. He sang again in La bohème in 1975 with Georges Prêtre, and he shared the stage with Pavarotti and Ileana Cotrubaș. In 1976 Così fan tutte returned with Karl Böhm and a cast that included Margaret Price, Agnes Baltsa and Hermann Prey. He also gave a ‘buffo’ recital at the Piccola Scala.
Panerai returned in a cameo as Ping in Turandot conducted by Lorin Maazel in a Zeffirelli production with Ghena Dimitrova, Katia Ricciarelli and Nicola Martinucci, which opened the 1983/1984 season.
His last time on La Scala’s stage was just two years ago, during a special evening for Maria Callas. He carried a walking stick, but was spritely, passionate and amusing.
17 October 1924 – 22 October 2019