Rolando Panerai, the Italian baritone who often performed and recorded with Maria Callas, has died at the age of 95. Possessed of a distinctive timbre, the baritone was closely associated with the title role of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and the character Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff, which he recorded twice for Karajan and once for Bernstein.
Born in Campi Bisenzio on October 17, 1924, Panerai pursued vocal training in Florence and Milan. He made his stage debut in Florence in 1946 as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, singing mostly in Naples over the next few years. His La Scala debut came in 1951 when he appeared as the High Priest in Samson et Dalila, a house at which he would appear regularly for the next 25 years. In 1954, Panerai appeared in a broadcast production of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini, marking the very first time an opera was shown on Italian television. Nearly five decades later he would perform in a live broadcast of La Traviata from Paris that was seen by audiences worldwide.
Panerai’s repertoire numbered more than 150 operas, but he was perhaps best known for his comic portrayals. In addition to Ford, his signature role, Mozart’s baritone parts soon became calling cards, as did Figaro in Rossini’s Barbiere, Belcore and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, and Malatesta and the title role of the same composer’s Don Pasquale. He would appear in his other signature role, Gianni Schicchi, as late as 2011 in Genova, when the baritone was 87.
Panerai enjoyed a busy international career, appearing at the Paris Opera, the Royal Opera House, the Bolshoi Theatre, the Oper Frankfurt, the Salzburg Festival and at Glyndebourne. A regular at the Vienna State Opera, he first appeared there in 1956 as Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Maria Callas, whom he would later remember as “a good friend and colleague”. They often appeared together at La Scala and made a number of acclaimed recordings together.
Panerai’s final years were spent teaching and directing. His final production was, fittingly, Gianni Schicchi, which premiered just last year in Genoa.