BRUNO BARTOLETTI 1926-2013

Bruno Bartoletti, longtime Lyric Opera director, dies

The funeral is Monday for the longtime director of Lyric Opera.

Bruno Bartoletti, the widely admired Italian conductor who served as artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago throughout a close association with the company that lasted a half-century, died early Sunday in a hospital in Florence, Italy, after a long illness.

His death, which came one day before his 87th birthday, was announced by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the annual arts festival in Florence, of which city he was a lifelong resident.

Bartoletti was a beloved fixture at Lyric from his American debut with the theater in 1956, at 30, as a late replacement for his mentor, the revered maestro Tullio Serafin. Although the young Florentine was relatively unknown at the time, his skills were evident from the start and he soon established himself as master of the Italian repertory that earned Lyric the nickname “La Scala West.”

Carol Fox, who had just seized control of the two-year-old company after a rancorous power struggle with the company’s other co-founders, was loath to surrender power to anyone, but she was impressed enough with Bartoletti’s skills to name him Lyric’s co-artistic director with Pino Donati, a post they shared until 1974. That year Bartoletti became the company’s sole artistic director and principal conductor.

He conducted nearly 600 performances of 55 operas at Lyric between 1956 and 2007, a remarkable track record by any standard. One of his final appearances in Chicago was a sentimental return at the beginning of Lyric’s 2007-08 season to conduct Verdi’s “La Traviata,” one of four Italian opera staples he had led here during his first season with the company.

Bartoletti retired as artistic director in 1999, at which time he was given an emeritus title by then-general director William Mason. Along with Mason’s predecessors, Ardis Krainik and Fox, he greatly valued Bartoletti’s artistic counsel, company loyalty and friendship, as well as what Bartoletti contributed in general to Lyric’s artistic integrity over the years.

Not only did the modest, genial Bartoletti have a keen appreciation of great singers and great singing, but he also had a sharp eye for budding podium talent. He made certain Lyric brought in some of the best up-and-coming conductors whose strengths he believed would complement his own. Thanks to him, Riccardo Chailly and Daniele Gatti both made their American operatic debuts here when they were not widely known.

Beyond that, his vast working knowledge of opera and the mechanics of running the artistic end of an opera company made him Lyric’s most trusted consigliere for decades.

“Unlike so many music directors today, Bruno remained a constant presence at Lyric for the entire season, and that meant a great deal to Lyric,” Mason said. “That kind of longer, deeply committed association with a company is probably a thing of the past.”

Although the Italian opera repertory from Rossini to Luigi Dallapiccola was in Bartoletti’s blood, his intellectual affinity for modern and contemporary opera made him singularly adept as an interpreter of 20th century repertory, here and abroad.

At Lyric he introduced Strauss’ “Elektra,” Berg’s “Wozzeck,” Prokofiev’s “Angel of Fire” and “The Love for Three Oranges,” Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” and Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova.” An important Bartoletti first was his conducting the U.S. premiere of Britten’s “Billy Budd” with the Chicago company in 1970. He also instigated the commission that resulted in Lyric’s giving the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost” here in 1979.

He also led the Italian premieres of such major 20th century works as Shostakovich’s “The Nose” and Prokofiev’s “The Gambler,” also the world premiere of Ginastera’s “Don Rodrigo” in Buenos Aires.

Bartoletti built the Lyric Opera Orchestra into one of the finest opera ensembles in the world. As late as 2006, more than 90 percent of the musicians were his appointees. To this day veteran Lyric players speak fondly of his tutelage in matters of sound, style and pacing, and of the reverence he brought to everything he conducted.

Rather than pursue a high-powered international career, Bartoletti preferred working extensively in one opera house at a time, resisting temptations to spread himself too thinly all over the world. Still, his close, longtime ties with the theaters of Florence, Milan, Rome, Parma, Genoa, Bologna and elsewhere around the world made him a valuable talent scout for Lyric.

After a brief period as a flutist in the Maggio Musicale orchestra, Bartoletti became pianist at the center of vocal training attached to the Florence Teatro Comunale. He worked as an assistant to such major conductors as Artur Rodzinski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vittorio Gui and Serafin. The latter encouraged him to take up conducting. He made his conducting debut at the Teatro Comunale in 1953 with a production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” prepared by Gui. He was named the company’s resident conductor in 1957.

Bartoletti held the rank of Cavaliere di Gran Croce della Repubblica Italiana, the highest honor the Italian government can bestow. A member of Rome’s Accademia di Santa Cecilia, he was also the recipient of the Italian music critics’ prestigious Abbiati Prize.

“I think I did many things for Chicago,” Bartoletti told the Tribune in 2006, the year of his golden anniversary with Lyric. “But Chicago did much more for me. This theater gave me something really essential. It created my (musical) personality. I will be eternally grateful to this theater and this city.”

Survivors include two daughters, Chiara and Maria; and five grandchildren. Rosanna Bartoletti, to whom he was married for 58 years, died in 2011.

A funeral is scheduled for Monday in Sesto Fiorentino, a Florence suburb where Bartoletti was born.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein


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