The Italian bass Cesare Siepi was one of the finest exponents of Mozart's Don Giovanni to tread the opera stage in the second half of the 20th century. He sang the role 71 times in New York at the Metropolitan Opera; he sang it at La Scala in Milan, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Royal Opera House in London and many other places. He was also a powerful King Philip II in Don Carlos and sang at least eight or nine other of Verdi's rewarding bass roles. His range easily extended to Wagner, sung in Italian at La Scala and in German at the Met. His beautiful voice, strong, warm and supple, allied to good looks and a splendid stage presence, brought him a popularity that lasted throughout his long career.
Siepi was born in Milan in 1923. He studied briefly at the Conservatory there, but was mainly self-taught. He made his debut in 1941 at Schio, near Vicenza, singing Sparafucile in Rigoletto. In 1943, to escape being called up by the Fascists, he fled to Switzerland and was interned there. At the end of the Second World War he resumed his career, singing Silva in Verdi's Ernani at La Fenice in Venice. In 1946 he sang Zaccaria in Verdi's Nabucco at the re-opening of La Scala, where he continued to sing for a dozen years.
In 1947 he sang Nonno innocenzo in the first performance of Pizzetti's L'oro and the following year took part in the 30-year memorial celebrations of the death of Arrigo Boito, singing the title role of the composer's Mefistofele and Simon Mago in Nerone, conducted by Toscanini. In 1950 he accompanied the Scala company to Covent Garden, singing Pistol in Verdi's Falstaff and the bass part in the Verdi Requiem.
Siepi's other roles at La Scala included Raimondo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and Balthasar in the same composer's La Favorite; the Old Hebrew in Saint-Saëns' Samson et Dalila, Lothario in Thomas's Mignon, the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Pogner in Wagner's I maestri cantori and Ramfis in Aida.
In 1950 he made his debut at the Met as Philip II in Don Carlos and continued to sing there for 23 seasons. As well as Mozart's Don Giovanni and Figaro, his repertory included Don Basilio in Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia, Mephistophélès in Gounod's Faust, Colline in La Bohème, Alvise in Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Oroveso in Bellini's Norma, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Verdi's Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino, Silva in Ernani, Zaccaria in Nabucco and Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra. In 1970 he sang Gurnemanz in Wagner's Parsifal in German.
Meanwhile he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival in 1953 as Don Giovanni and later sang Philip II there and in Vienna. In 1953 he sang in San Francisco as Padre Guardiano and Figaro, returning in 1954 as Don Giovanni and Mephistophélès. In 1962 Siepi sang Don Giovanni and Philip II at Covent Garden. His Giovanni, elegant and attractive as well as sinister and, occasionally, frightening was indeed superb, while as Philip he expressed the authority of the King and the loneliness of the man in equal measure. Both characterisations carried a tremendous dramatic punch while the vocal line remained subtly phrased and as smooth as black velvet.
Siepi continued to sing until 1988. In 1982 at the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona he sang Henry VIII in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, a role he first sung in the same theatre in 1947. He sang Rodolfo in Bellini's La sonnambula at Seattle in 1984 and added to his Verdi collection with Roger in Jérusalem at Parma in 1986.
Cesare Siepe, opera singer: born Milan 10 February 1923; married; died Atlanta, Georgia, United States 5 July 2010.