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For Cesare Siepi, All's Well That Ends Well

February 10, 1986|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Not long after Cesare Siepi's recent recital at UCLA, the tall, silver-haired basso stood in the lobby of his hotel, discussing what he called "the near-accident" that occurred mid-song at his performance.

"But I recovered (from the memory lapse)," he said, "and felt that all was well that ended well." His laugh was hearty, his gestures animated, his face a candid reflection of the quickly changing events he narrated in deep tones and a pronounced Italian accent.

From his public demeanor, no one would guess that this genial, singing actor who exuded a mellow aristocracy can be reclusive, wary of publicity and had, in fact, called off two earlier interview appointments.

"Why does the press want to talk to me?" asked the world-renowned artist in all innocence, still beaming his look of mild incredulity as he sat down to a Virgin Mary and roasted nuts. "I'm psychologically outdated. Whatever I say now can only be what I said years ago. And others know how to present the merchandise better.

"I'm not very good at analyzing things," continued the man who for 20 years was one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading basses. "Besides, my career is limited now. I'm 63 and not about to start on a new course. The truth is I feel beat up.

"They shoot horses with broken ankles, but I'm just slowing down."

Siepi does not look beat up any more than he seems a recluse, or someone lacking powers of scrutiny. If a slightly arthritic hip bothers him, it belies his dancing eyes and high color--not to mention a certain dapper handsomeness that would stand him in good stead as a senior romantic lead on "Dynasty."

Along that line, he will sing in the Long Beach Opera production of Verdi's "Don Carlo" beginning Thursday, thanks to company artistic director Michael Milenski, who lured Siepi here to sing his signature role, King Philip of Spain. It all happened two years ago in San Jose and now nearly the same team repeats the staging locally.

Verdi's great opera about king and country, honor and tyranny, was the vehicle Rudolf Bing chose in 1950 to begin his two-decade reign as Met impresario. But at the last minute a snafu developed; the scheduled Philip, Boris Christoff, was withdrawn because his appearance, as a Bulgarian (Communist), violated the McCarran Act of 1950. Into the breach flew an unknown Siepi.

Since then he has sung the important Italian and French basso roles--besides the Met, a notable one in Salzburg with Herbert von Karajan and directed by the legendary Gustav Gruendgens; another staged by Luchino Visconti at Covent Garden.

"The production style doesn't matter," Siepi said. 'It can be spare, with nothing but a beam of light to isolate Philip's anguish. Or it can be a thing of sumptuous spectacle. If the skeleton is solid, the flesh around it holds.

"Philip is not someone's fabrication, but a proud, selfish monarch. He's right there in history and idealized in Schiller's text. He is consumed by the eternal struggle between church and state, by a sense of his own virility, by his love for Elizabeth and his distrust of her, by his agony of shame at producing such a son as Carlo, just a dreamer in the opera, but a sadistic nut in reality."

The Long Beach production, designed by David Fielding, underscores the work's Spanish brooding and relies on a mood of stark alienation. It definitely falls into the category of what Siepi calls "the new, cinematic approach" that occasionally uses film and video techniques. But, as he said, "innovation cannot be blocked, so long as the composer's desires are honored."

He admitted that the steeply raked stage is difficult to negotiate but goes along with it in the interest of promoting a concept. "The stage must give illusions of truth in whatever way it can," he said. "But the character must synthesize regardless of concept or production style.

"What I object to is forced innovation. The idea of Mimi ('La Boheme') dying of a drug overdose is to me just a gimmick, another of those dishonest tricks a la mode. It has more to do with following what's on a police blotter today than what Puccini intended. Just because sex and violence are now the mainstay of entertainment doesn't mean they should automatically be grafted onto a period piece."

With Philip, Siepi doesn't have to worry about any such grafting. He says that Verdi and Schiller characterized the king as "a distant, lonely figure with everything happening in his mind. There's no need to show the apples and peaches. And I don't even have to discover a hidden personality. The subtleties of his despair are there.

"All I have to do, really, is ride on Verdi's music, like a thief of Baghdad. The rest depends upon the audience."

Whether he will return after "Don Carlo" to Long Beach or anywhere nearby depends, of course, on how an offer strikes him and whether he chooses to fit it into his leisurely schedule. But one thing Siepi does not plan is a retirement.

"I don't want to conclude my career badly," he said, smiling. "That would rob me of the satisfaction of talking to aspiring artists and passing on testimonials. The secret is not to ever sing the last performance."

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