Carlo Felice Cillario: Opera conductor

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Carlo Felice Cillario, opera and concert conductor: born San Rafael, Argentina 7 February 1915; died Bologna, Italy 13 December 2007.

Conductors are notoriously long-lived and Carlo Felice Cillario's career lasted more than 60 years. At first his operatic repertory was almost exclusively Italian, with a few French works thrown in a repertory he conducted all over Europe and in North, Central and South America. Later he became an expert in Wagner, while he spent most of the last 20 years of his career in Australia. Always thoughtful for his singers, he nevertheless kept a firm hand on the orchestra and the overall aspect of the performance: the composer came first and woe betide anyone who did not give his or her best efforts, or was not as completely immersed in the music as he was himself.

Cillario was born of Italian parents in San Rafael, Argentina. When he was eight years old the family moved back to Italy, to Bologna, where he studied the violin at the Conservatory, intending to be a solo player. However, hopes of becoming a violin virtuoso were dashed when he broke his wrist playing football, and he turned to conducting. He made his dbut with Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Odessa Opera in 1942, then conducted concerts with the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra. After the Second World War was over he went back to Argentina for a while, then returned to Italy and became conductor of the Angelicum, a concert society in Milan.

Cillario was becoming more and more oriented towards opera; in Buenos Aires he conducted Pizzetti's La figlia di jorio in 1955 and later Aida and Tosca; the seasons at the Angelicum frequently began with concert performannces of early Mozart operas, such as Ascanio in Alba in 1959 and Lucio Silla in 1961. A triple bill of modern Italian works by Ghedini, Rossellini and Viozzi given in Turin was followed by Carmen in Bologna in 1959.The following year he returned to Buenos Aires for Ponchielli's La Gioconda, then conducted La Bohme and Tosca in the first of several visits to Mexico City. In 1961 he made his British dbut at Glyndebourne, conducting L'elisir d'amore, which was well received, and he returned for Massenet's Werther in 1966.

Cillario also made his dbut at the Lyric Opera, Chicago in 1961, conducting Verdi's La forza del destino. He returned yearly until 1965, adding Donizetti's Don Pasquale and La favorita, Rossini's La Cenerentola and Puccini's Madama Butterfly to his usual repertory. In 1962 he conducted La favorita again, in Lisbon, with particular success. Then in 1964 Cillario made his Covent Garden dbut at the first performance of Franco Zeffirelli's production of Tosca, in which Maria Callas sang the title role and Tito Gobbi was Scarpia. This was one of those legendary performances that anyone who attended it can only recall through a haze of glory. Was it as over whelming as we remember? It was certainly an Occasion with a capital O.

After another trip to Mexico City in 1965 during which he conducted Verdi's Otello and Falstaff, Cillario made his New York dbut at Carnegie Hall with a concert performance o f Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, with Montserrat Caball as Queen Elizabeth I. This was the first of many collaborations between the singer and the conductor; these included La traviata and Massenet's Manon in Madrid (1967), Donizetti's Maria Stuard in concert in New York and Roberto Devereux on stage in Barcelona (1968) and Bellini's Il pirata in concert at Drury Lane Theatre, London in 1969. This last was a tremendous success for both Caball, who sang Imogene on crutches after an accident, and for the conductor.

Meanwhile Cillario made his dbut at the Paris Opra in 1968 conducting Verdi's Don Carlos, returning two years later for Falstaff. In 1968 he also made his Australian dbut with the Elizabethan OperaTrust at the Adelaide Festival with Wagner's Tannhäuser, followed by Tosca; Mozart's Magic Flute was added to the programme in Melbourne and all three operas were performed in Sydney. This first Australian visit was much appreciated by t he Elizabethan Trust, who invited Cillario back in 1969, when he conducted Madama Butterfly and Falstaff in Canberra and Falstaff again (this time with Tito Gobbi in the title role) and Verdi's Un ballo in maschera in Melbourne. That year he returned to Covent Garden for Verdi's Macbeth, followed in 1971 with Bellini's La sonnambula.

In 1970 Cillario was appointed Music Director of the Elizabethan Opera Trust, but had to cancel the appointment the following year because of his commitments in Europe and America. These included a dbut in San Francisco in 1970 with Tosca and Verdi's Nabucco, followed in 1972 by Il trovatore; and in 1972 his Metropolitan, New York, dbut with La sonnambula, followed in 1973 by Norma, with Caball making her Met dbut. She had first sung the role at Barcelona in 1970, with Cillario conducting; the following year he had conducted her in Il pirata and La bohme in Barcelona. Later that same year they both appeared at La Scala, Milan in Maria Stuarda and Cillario conducted a concert performance of Norma at the Royal Festival Hall with Caball, in superb form, as the heroine.

Their next collaboration, in 1972, when Caball sang Violetta in Luchino Visconti's black and white production of La traviata, was less successful. Caterina Cornaro in Naples, Verdi's I Lombardi in Parma, The Flying Dutchman (in Italian) at Bergamo and Don Giovanni in Stockholm followed, then in 1975 Cillario returned to Sydney as guest conductor of the newly renamed Australian Opera. He would spend part of each year in Australia until his retirement in 2003. Though he continued to conduct in Europe mainly in Stockholm or the nearby 18th-century theatre of Drottningholm it was in Australia that his efforts were concentrated, starting with a magnificent performance of Aida in the concert hall of the new Sydney Opera House.

Over the years he conducted all his Puccini favourites; he added Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra to his long list of Verdi titles; and he conducted Mozart's The Abduction of the Seraglio as well as Don Giovanni. He also conducted several Wagner operas, including Die Walkre (with Rita Hunter as Brnnhilde and, at a revival, Alberto Remedios as Siegmund) and Das Rheingold, as well as Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger, the latter apparently a huge success. In 1983 Spontini's La Vestale in Barcelona was a final collaboration with Caball. In 2003 Cillario conducted a farewell concert in Sydney, then retired.

Elizabeth Forbes