The great bass died in Atlanta on July 5. He came to prominence in the US at the age of 27 when he appeared in Rudolf Bing’s first production as General manager of the Met. He portrayed Phillip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo. This performance (November 6, 1950) opened the season and was telecast. His last performance at the Met was on April 19, 1973. In total, he appeared 491 times at the Met. He left the house at the height of his powers because of a dispute with its management. I do not know the details of this split. but it was so bitter that he did not attend the Met’s centennial celebration on Oct 22, 1983 though he was married to an American and lived in the US. When the Met began to rebroadcast its Saturday afternoon matinees on the Sirius satellite network he refused to allow his performances to be aired. He eventually relented. He continued to sing with great effect until well into his 60s. His angry departure from the Met was a great loss to American opera lovers.
I heard Siepi in virtually every role he sang in New York. He was a basso cantabile. His voice was smooth and evenly produced over its entire range. His sound was ample , though not “huge” as it’s sometimes described by people who never heard him in the opera house. The adjectives that best describe him are graceful, subtle, noble, suave, and elegant. It was these characteristics that made him equally effective in Mozart and Verdi. He was also tall, dark, and handsome. His figure was slender and his stage presence winning. In short, he was one of the 20th century’s greatest bassos.
Siepi made his Met debut as Phillip II because Boris Christoff who was supposed to sing the role was denied an entry visa by the US government supposedly because of the McCarran Immigration Act which banned citizens of the Soviet bloc countries from entering the country. But this commonly stated reason is obviously incorrect because the McCarran Act didn’t become law until 1952. For whatever reason, Christoff couldn’t gain entry to the US and Siepi was hired in his place. Christoff eventually did get into the US, but he never sang at the Met. Siepi’s artistry compensated for the loss of Christoff, but it would have been nice to have had both of them at the Met.
Here’s Siepi’s in Phillip’s great aria Ella giammi m’amo. If you want to compare Siepi’s version to Christoff’s go here. The Verdi Requiem require a great conductor, orchestra, and chorus in addition to four true Verdi solists. Here’s Siepi singing Confutatis maledictis under Toscanini’s baton. In both numbers Siepi uses his dark and supple voice to great effect.
Siepi was the preeminent Don Giovanni of his time. Just for fun here he is singing Leporello’s Catalog aria recorded in the 50s (Siepi Catalog aria 50s) and then 30 years later (Siepi Catalog aria 1985) when he was 62 years old. This was a dozen years after he had left the Met. It shows what the company lost by antagonizing the great bass. I don’t believe he ever sang Leporello on stage. His first performance anywhere as Don Giovanni was at the Met – November 26, 1952. At the New York house he virtually owned the role singing it there 91 times over two decades. Here he sings the Champagne aria (Fin ch’han dal vino).
Siepi could also sing American popular songs to great effect. His interpretation of Cole Porter’s Night and Day displays his beautiful voice and almost perfect English diction; he gives the great song all it deserves. A superb artist who died in the fullness of age and who fortunately left a deep recorded legacy.