'It is best to sing well and not become bigheaded,' he said in 1996, 'the rest comes all by itself' was the advice to students of Italian baritone Rolando Panerai, who sang on some of the most famous opera recordings of the 20th century and excelled in Verdi and the comic Italian repertoire. He sang more than 150 roles at leading international opera houses, throughout his 65-year operatic career and appeared frequently with Maria Callas in her prime.
Born in Campi Bisenzio near Florence on October 17, 1924, Panerai trained in Florence and Milan, made his stage debut as Enrico (Lucia) in 1946 in his home town and his professional debut at the Teatro San Carlo in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto whilst still in his early 20s. Before he was 30 he was already achieving success in more mature roles such as Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and Sharpless in Madama Butterfly (with which he made the first of many appearances at Teatro alla Scala). He was soon to prove a skilful comedian too as Rossini’s and Mozart’s (and Paisiello’s) Figaros, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, and Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Belcore. Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff he recorded twice for Herbert von Karajan (in 1956 and 1980) and also for Leonard Bernstein opposite Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Falstaff in 1966. He also sang the title role of Verdi’s opera (when he was well into his 60s) for Colin Davis’s studio recording.
Radiotelevisione italiana’s 1951 commemorations of the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death included several of the composer’s early works for broadcast, and brought Panerai into working contact with Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano. This led to an important sequence of recordings, many for Columbia and conducted by Karajan and produced by Walter Legge. These included: Ford and the title role in Falstaff; Karajan's first and second Bohème; two Böhm Cosìs (again with two roles, first Guglielmo then Alfonso); Patanè’s Gianni Schicchi; Karajan’s and Callas’s Columbia Trovatore and ‘live’ 1955 Berlin Lucia; a Giulini Barbiere broadcast from London’s ROH; and the Barbirolli Butterfly with Scotto. Although not promoted as a star as widely as some contemporaries, Panerai became essentially the go-to Italian baritone for major repertoire recordings. In addition there had been an unexpected venture into Wagner – Amfortas in an Italian language Parsifal conducted by Vittorio Gui, also starring Callas as Kundry.
Panerai was not a great lover of more contemporary scores but professional duty took him into the Italian premieres of works by Hindemith and Prokofiev and the creation of roles in Ildebrando Pizzetti’s Il calzare d’argento, Renzo Rossellini’s Il linguaggio dei fiori, Guido Turchi’s Il buon soldato Svejk and, for Columbia again, Menotti’s Amelia al Ballo. On film and for TV he appeared in an early Barbiere di Siviglia for Italian television and Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, filmed on location in Paris in 2000 and conducted by Zubin Mehta. In later years he made several forays into directing. These included Gianni Schicchi in Genoa, in which – in 2011 at the age of 87 – he made his last appearance in the title role.
Rolando Panerai died on October 23 at his home in Settignano outside Florence, less than a week after his 95th birthday.