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Bruno Bartoletti, longtime Lyric Opera conductor, dies in Florence

Bruno Bartoletti

Bruno Bartoletti

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Updated: July 11, 2013 6:39AM

Bruno Bartoletti, the self-effacing, amiable and adventurous Florentine conductor who was one of the last surviving links to the early years of Lyric Opera of Chicago, died Sunday morning in his hometown in Italy, a day before his 87th birthday.

Mr. Bartoletti, who first conducted at Lyric in its third season in 1956, his U.S. debut, held leadership positions with the company beginning in 1964, when he was named principal conductor. In 1975, he added the title artistic director. He retired from both posts in 1999 at the age of 73 but continued his involvement with the company as artistic director emeritus, a regular conductor and a popular member of the company family.

Mr. Bartoletti, who was born in the town of Sesto Fiorentino, just west of Florence proper, in 1926, had been hospitalized for the last few weeks, according to Lyric. He conducted at Lyric for the last time in fall of 2007, Verdi’s “La traviata.” In a 51-year association, he led some 600 performances of 55 operas at the Civic Opera House.

The conductor was connected with all of the major figures in Lyric’s history and helped to shape Lyric’s reputation as a home for both classic Italian repertoire and, until recently, of 20th century works as well. Initially recommended to company co-founder Carol Fox by legendary Italian baritone Tito Gobbi, a Lyric fixture, Mr. Bartoletti was the artistic right arm of Fox’s beloved successor Ardis Krainik. Lyric’s original and longtime press agent, Danny Newman, always referred to Mr. Bartoletti as “my brother.”

William Mason, Krainik’s artistic operations director and successor as general director, first met the conductor when Mr. Bartoletti led Lyric’s second presentations of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1956 and Mason reprised his performance as the Shepherd Boy. Mason then worked for many years as assistant to Mr. Bartoletti’s colleague and predecessor as artistic director, Pino Donati.

“Bruno was a mentor, colleague and friend for more than 50 years,” Mason said in a statement. “He was passionate about opera and singing. Italian opera was in his blood — there was no better interpreter of Puccini. Yet he had a unique affinity for contemporary operas as well. He was a wonderful musician and human being, and he made a remarkable contribution to the musical life of Chicago.”

Mr. Bartoletti’s countryman, Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti, who was music director of the Maggio Musicale in Florence from 1969 to 1980, where Mr. Bartoletti was later artistic director, told the Sun-Times, “The death of Bruno Bartoletti is the loss of a very fine musician and conductor. His contributions to the world of opera remains extremely important to the real Italian tradition. In addition to his music, I also had the privilege of being a personal friend, knowing him for many years from my time in Florence beginning in 1969 to these recent years in Chicago, where he will be particularly greatly missed.”

Anthony Freud, Lyric’s current general director and the first to come to the company in the post-Bartoletti era, said, in a statement, “Bruno Bartoletti was a giant in Lyric’s history, nurturing and developing the fledgling company ... and overseeing its artistic and musical growth. By the time he retired as artistic director, Lyric was recognized around the world as one of the great opera companies.

“Bruno’s contribution to Lyric was unique in its importance and longevity.”

Andrew Davis, who succeeded Mr. Bartoletti as Lyric music director in 2000, singled out Mr. Bartoletti’s moving of the company beyond his native Italian repertoire. “He oversaw the broadening of the repertoire, carefully choosing the most appropriate maestri to balance his own work, which included a remarkable range of 20th-century operas and some exciting premieres.”

As so many others did, Davis recalled Mr. Bartoletti’s kindness in a world stereotyped as one of rivalries and vendettas.

Former Chicago Opera Theater general director Brian Dickie — reached by the Sun-Times in Warsaw, where he is chairing auditions for a vocal competition — also recalled Mr. Bartoletti’s rare generosity and curiosity about “a wide, wide range of work.”

“I first heard him in 1961 in Aix en Provence in France conducting a new edition of a Baroque opera by Monteverdi. And he was passionate and constant about presenting the operas of Benjamin Britten in Italy — that just was not done! This interest in all avenues of the 20th century had to be unique among Italian opera conductors of his generation.

“And his kindness and affability, the amount of pure affection he generated in others. He was a rare creature, both brave and sweet.”

Mr. Bartoletti and his late wife Rosanna came to Chicago for long portions of each season, shopping and cooking for themselves while here and attending daily mass at Holy Name Cathedral.

Lyric Orchestra members recalled Mr. Bartoletti fondly. In a statement, 23-year veteran principal clarinet Charlene Zimmerman said, “Maestro Bartoletti had a special reverence for music. He really taught that to the orchestra through any score he conducted, especially in the Italian repertoire. I can’t tell you in how many of those pieces I refer back to everything he taught us about the sound, the pacing, everything in the music. I remember that so strongly about him on the podium.”

In addition to the Italians, Mr. Bartoletti brought and led Russian and Czech masterworks to Lyric, now staples of the repertory. And he pushed constantly, as he did in his homeland, for 20th century and new works. He conducted Lyric premieres of now standard operas by Berg, Prokofiev, Falla, Britten (the professional company U.S. premiere of “Billy Budd” in 1970), Bartok, Janacek and Shostakovich as well as a somewhat infamous 1978 world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost.”

Mr. Bartoletti’s roster of singers at Lyric is a who’s who of the second half of the 20th century — although he arrived in Chicago after Lyric’s most renowned debutante and member, soprano Maria Callas, had broken permanently with the company. Those mentioned Sunday by Lyric included sopranos Martina Arroyo, Montserrat Caballe, Ileana Cotrubas, Regine Crespin, Eileen Farrell, Mirella Freni, Catherine Malfitano, Anna Moffo, Margaret Price, Eleanor Steber, Renata Tebaldi and Anna Tomowa-Sintow; mezzo-sopranos Grace Bumbry, Fiorenza Cossotto and Marilyn Horne; tenors Carlo Bergonzi, Jussi Björling, Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe di Stefano, Placido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, Leopold Simoneau, Richard Tucker and Jon Vickers; baritones Ettore Bastianini, Renato Bruson, Piero Cappuccilli, Tito Gobbi and Sherrill Milnes; and basses Boris Christoff, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Jerome Hines and Samuel Ramey.

He brought younger Italian conductors, including Riccardo Chailly and Daniele Gatti, to Chicago before other companies had them.

Mostly in Italy, Mr. Bartoletti’s enormous repertoire included world premieres by Berio, Dallapiccola, Dessau, Ginastera, Penderecki and Pizzetti and once-neglected works by Gluck, Verdi, Hindemith, Krenek and Giordano. Even in recent years he continued to champion Britten, both his operas and War Requiem, as well as Nino Rota and his fellow Florentine Luigi Dallapiccola. Just five years ago he conducted Britten’s “Death in Venice” — at La Fenice in Venice.

Mr. Bartoletti also conducted at Covent Garden, Geneva, and many times at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. His scheduled Metropolitan debut leading Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in 1986 evaporated for reasons never disclosed in a production that saw both female leads replaced and the chorus master conducting the orchestra. He made many studio recordings and approved DVD releases with some of the biggest names of his time including Pavarotti, Domingo, Tebaldi, Cossotto, Ricciarelli, Caballe, Moffo and Milnes.

In his youth, Mr. Bartoletti both studied and worked as an opera flutist and piano accompanist and was an assistant to major conductors Artur Rodzinski, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Vittorio Gui and Tulio Serafin, who pressed him to pursue conducting. He made his debut, in Florence, in December 1953, less than three years before coming to Chicago for the first time.

Mr. Bartoletti held the highest Italian honor, Cavaliere di Gran Croce della Repubblica Italiana, and was a member of Rome’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia, and received the Abbiati Prize from Italy’s music critics.

A small man physically who maintained his handsome head and twinkling eyes throughout his life, Mr. Bartoletti was reluctant to talk about himself or his accomplishments. A visit to his office in the opera house would find him looking at new scores, his “wisha lista” for the company. When stepping down from his administrative duties, he remarked, “You cannot imagine all that Lyric and this wonderful city has given to me, has made me. I was just lucky to try to give some music back.”

Of the nine “Jubilarians” who attended Lyric’s 50th anniversary gala in 2004, including Mr. Bartoletti, only mezzo Marilyn Horne is still living.

Mr. Bartoletti is survived by two daughters, Chiara and Maria, and five grandchildren. His wife died in 2011. A funeral is set for Monday in Sesto Fiorentino with a Chicago memorial program presented by Lyric to be announced.

Andrew Patner is critic at large at WFMT-FM (98.7).

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