Artist Profile: Cesare Siepi, Verdi Bass & Consummate ‘Don Giovanni’

By David Salazar

Cesare Siepi, born on Feb. 10, 1923, would go on to become an iconic Italian bass of the post-war era.

A number of details about his early years (including the year of his birth) remain interesting mysteries. While it is known that he kicked off his career as a singer performing with a madrigal group, there remains debate on whether he was self-taught, as he claimed. He did attend the music conservatory for some time, but his opera career was interrupted by World War II. He had made his debut in 1941 in “Rigoletto,” but fled Italy in opposition to the fascism that pervaded his country.

Once the war was over, he resumed his career and took it the next level with prominent premieres in Venice and La Scala. During these early years, he performed mainly operas from such Italian masters as Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Puccini, and Boito. He also performed under Arturo Toscanini.

In 1947, he made his international debut in Barcelona in “Anna Bolena,” and in 1950 he went to the Metropolitan Opera to perform as Filippo II in “Don Carlo.”  He would remain a fixture at the Met, performing 491 times between 1950 and 1973.

He appeared at all the major opera houses around the world and was also a prominent recitalist. Late in his career, he would turn to Broadway musicals in addition to opera. He retired from the opera stage in 1989 and died in 2010 after suffering a stroke.

Signature Roles

Siepi sang a wide range of repertory but for many, he was THE “Don Giovanni” of his time. He famously debuted a new production of the work at the Salzburg Festival and from there would become a fixture in the role. He performed “Don Giovanni” around the planet. He sang 43 performances of the role at the Vienna State Opera, more than any other singer besides Eberhard Wächter.

He also performed the role a whopping 91 times at the Met Opera. His first “Don Giovanni” came in 1952, with the last one coming 20 years later in New York.

In a review from a Met performance in 1971, Wesley Fuller of the Sunday Herald Traveler noted that “It is no news that Cesare Siepi’s Giovanni is of the highest order. It was on Saturday night; the voice was full and vibrant, and he acted the part so that one shared his hedonistic intensity while wincing at its effects. Siepi’s final scene produced a Giovanni who is frightened, running out of clever escapes and, finally, courageous and consistent.”

Interestingly, he was also renowned as a Verdi bass and took on the most prominent roles by the famed Italian master.

Watch and Listen

Here is an album of arias featuring the bass.

And here he is in a recording of “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

And here is the “Don Giovanni” from Salzburg.


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