Salvatore Licitra obituary

Operatic tenor with exemplary phrasing, dramatic charisma and a rare sensitivity

Hailed as the "new Pavarotti" at the start of his career, the Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, who has died at the age of 43 following a road accident, had much to live up to. He first came to attention as Manrico in Il Trovatore under Riccardo Muti, opening the 2000–01 season at La Scala. Muti, something of a purist in these matters, prohibited Licitra from singing the traditional but inauthentic high C in the cabaletta Di Quella Pira. Licitra had no choice but to obey, weathering the storm of the audience's vocal disapproval. Shortly after, he was able to bask in the rapturous acclaim of the audience at the less rigorous Verona Arena, where his performance of the same role was embellished with two high Cs. Then, in May 2002, his career took off when he substituted at very short notice for Luciano Pavarotti, who had pulled out of the Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Flown in by Concorde for the performance, Licitra gave the audience something of the thrill they had been hoping for and enjoyed prolonged ovations. He had already been dubbed the "new Pavarotti" by this time, but the sobriquet acquired greater significance following his dramatic substitution.

He went on to impress audiences round the world, singing regularly at the Met and other leading opera houses, including Covent Garden, Vienna and Los Angeles. But the "new Pavarotti" label became something of a liability, especially when his vocal technique let him down, as it did on a number of occasions in subsequent years. Whether or not he would have come to fill the generous shoes of Pavarotti will never now be known.

Licitra's fatal accident occurred while he was travelling on a motor scooter in Sicily, where he was due to receive a prize. Apparently suffering a cerebral haemorrhage, he crashed into a wall in Modica, Ragusa, sustaining severe head and chest injuries. He never regained consciousness and died nine days later.

Born in Berne, Switzerland, to Sicilian parents, Licitra was brought up in Milan and worked as a graphic artist for Italian Vogue. Hearing him sing along to the radio, his mother urged him to consider a career as a singer, and he entered the Arrigo Boito Conservatory in Parma, subsequently studying with Carlo Bergonzi in nearby Busseto. He made his debut in Parma as Gustavo in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera (1998). With Bergonzi's help his talent was brought to the attention of the Verona Arena, where he understudied leading roles in Rigoletto and Aida, as well as that of Gustavo. After auditioning for Muti, he sang Alvaro in La Forza del Destino (his 1999 debut at La Scala), followed by Cavaradossi in Tosca and Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly at Verona. A La Scala performance of Tosca in 2000, again under Muti, was recorded by Sony Classical. These appearances were followed in quick succession by an Alvaro in Madrid and another in Verona, where he received the Zenatello prize for tenor of the year. Further performances with the La Scala ensemble in Japan led to an exclusive recording contract with Sony.

The headline-catching drama of his substitution for Pavarotti at the Met won him worldwide recognition, and it seemed as if a star, perhaps even that elusive "fourth tenor" to follow Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, had materialised. Writing in the New York Times of that Tosca performance, Anthony Tommasini announced: "He is a genuine find, an exciting tenor with a big, dark-hued and muscular voice." Licitra went on to sing on numerous occasions at the Met in such operas as La Forza del Destino and Un Ballo in Maschera, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, and Puccini's Il Trittico and Turandot. He was due to sing the title role of Ernani for the first time at the Met next February.

At his best, Licitra demonstrated a vocal technique and stage presence worthy of Bergonzi and the trio to whom he was constantly compared. His legato line and phrasing were exemplary, his diction admirable and his projection encompassed both emotional intensity – a sob never seemed far away – and a rare sensitivity. Well-nourished in the lower and middle registers, the ringing tone he could draw on for such favourites as Nessun Dorma was as effortless as it was thrilling. Stocky of build, he had a charming grin and a personable demeanour, radiating an undeniable charisma onstage.

Perplexingly, Licitra seemed unable to maintain these high standards. Over the last half a dozen years, reviews of his performances at the Met and in Vienna, Zurich and elsewhere have commented on a dry, raspy tone, poor phrasing in a "provincial Alvaro" at the Vienna State Opera and a general loss of form. In a Tosca in Los Angeles in 2005, his lacklustre, feebly acted Cavaradossi was humiliatingly both eclipsed and outsung by the Sacristan.

In addition to the Tosca under Muti, Licitra recorded the role of Manrico in Il Trovatore (under the same conductor), and appeared on DVDs of Tosca (La Scala, 2000, under Muti) and Aida (Zurich, 2007, under Adam Fischer). Other recordings are of operatic highlights: The Debut, Forbidden Love and Duetto (with Marcelo Alvarez). Licitra also makes a vocal appearance on the soundtrack of the 2000 film The Man Who Cried, starring Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp and Cate Blanchett.

He is survived by his parents and his brother.

• Salvatore Licitra, operatic tenor, born 10 August 1968; died 5 September 2011

Salvatore Licitra official website


Barry Millington

The GuardianTramp

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