Obituary: Piero Cappuccilli

Baritone in the classic Italian tradition

Piero Cappuccilli, who has died aged 78, was the very epitome of all that is best in the tradition of Italian baritones. He proved that conclusively at Covent Garden in 1976, on a notable visit by La Scala, and gave a quite overwhelming performance of the title role in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra. This interpretation was housed in the highly imaginative production by Giorgio Strehler, first seen in 1971, with Claudio Abbado conducting.

Cappuccilli recently recalled the staging, saying that it was one of the most important events in postwar Italian opera. "Working with Strehler and Abbado, I was able to construct a whole character in all its complexity . . . The point of the production was to focus on Simone's character, but not at the expense of the drama as a whole." As I well recall, Cappuccilli was the troubled Doge to the life, capturing, through his immaculate singing and deep understanding of the text, every aspect of a complex personality. Happily, a recording of the superb cast La Scala assembled at the time has been caught on CD.

The great success of one Verdi opera was subsequently repeated in another - Macbeth, again directed by Strehler. This was also a part in which Cappuccilli was well cast, capturing the haunted nature of the Shakespearian character. In both roles, all his gifts as a Verdi baritone were on display: a remarkable consistency of warm, burnished tone carried up and down his register, a seemingly limitless breath control, thoughtful phrasing and a purposeful, incisive delivery of the text. That served him admirably in the 17 Verdian roles he undertook in his career.

Born in Trieste, Cappuccilli studied with Luciano Donaggio at - appropriately enough - Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Turin, where he began his career in small parts. His official debut was in a role that was to become a speciality with him - Tonio in Pagliacci, which he undertook at his final appearances at Covent Garden in 1989.

In 1959, EMI impresario Walter Legge, ever on the watch for new talent, brought Cappuccilli to London for the comparatively minor part of Masetto, in Giulini's legendary recording of Don Giovanni. That led to him singing Enrico in Callas's second set of Lucia Di Lammermoor. In the same year, he made his debut at the Metropolitan, New York, as Germont in La Traviata, another of his memorable roles at Covent Garden.

Cappuccilli's debut at La Scala, as Enrico, came in 1964. That and Amonasro, in Aida, and Don Carlo, in Forza Del Destino, in the same house the following season confirmed him as one of the most eminent baritones of his day in Italian opera, and a worthy successor to Ettore Bastianini, who died while still in his prime. Cappuccilli's scheming Iago was another Verdian part in which he excelled. He was soon singing his repertory in all the major houses.

In Salzburg, he was Rodrigo in Karajan's Don Carlos (1975), and, four years later, he was a menacingly implacable Luna for the same conductor, on Karajan's return to the Vienna State Opera, a production now available on DVD. By this time, he was in the full plenitude of his powers, and remained so for the following decade.

Cappuccilli was far from being confined to Verdian parts. A video confirms how superb he was in catching the conflicting emotions of Gérard, in Giordano's opera about the French revolution, Andrea Chénier, and, with his penetrating eyes and taut body language, he was the very epitome of a satyr as Scarpia in Tosca. The latter was the role of his farewell to La Scala in 1989.

He also helped in the revival of neglected roles - notably in Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, with Leyla Gencer as Elizabeth I at San Carlo in 1964, and Bellini's Il Pirata, with Monserrat Caballé in Florence in 1967.

Cappuccilli was a very present, extrovert performer, who sang with unstinting energy and, pardonably, threw in unwritten high notes when the mood took him. Like all the best Italian singers, he responded visibly to an audience's favourable reception. He is well represented on disc in most of his significant parts. Although not quite such a subtle interpreter as his coeval, Renato Bruson, Cappuccilli was the more secure and exciting baritone.

His career was ended by a severe car accident in 1992, after he had sung the title part in Verdi's Nabucco at the Verona arena. He had maintained a high standard of performance almost up to his enforced retirement, as I recall from a biting Alfio he offered in a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Kenwood lakeside theatre in the 1980s.

He is survived by his wife Graziella, two sons and a daughter.

· Piero Cappucilli, baritone, born November 9 1926; died July 12 2005


Alan Blyth

The GuardianTramp

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