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Sesto Bruscantini--A Life in the Opera

When Sesto Bruscantini says, “If a singer lives in a sane manner and has a good technique, it is very difficult for the voice to give out,” he ought to know.

The Italian baritone, Don Alfonso in L.A. Music Center Opera’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” opening tonight in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, made his operatic debut in 1946. Today, backstage at the Pavilion before an evening rehearsal, Bruscantini and his wife, Angelina, note with considerable amusement that 1946 long precedes the births of his four American colleagues in the “Cosi” cast.

“In the theater, we don’t count the years, we count what’s inside,” he says.

“It is possible to be young and have an ‘older’ understanding. In general, the young singers are respectful of more experienced ones, and this is pleasant. It helps me.”

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The Bruscantinis have only praise for the current cast and company, and for Sir Peter Hall’s stage direction. Squelching rumors of a darker, more somber “Cosi” than customary, the baritone punctuates his mellifluous Italian with an English disclaimer: “I don’ think so.”

“Sir Peter goes very deeply into things, but it is not really so dark and serious. For me, it is very human. After all, life is drama. We can take it with some laughter and lightness sometimes, but it cannot be reduced to a triviality. And so it is with ‘Cosi fan Tutte.”’

Bruscantini’s Don Alfonso is no mere late-career capitulation to waning vocal resources. He sang the role at Glyndebourne in 1951 and a few years later recorded it for Herbert von Karajan, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Fiordiligi.

“I think this record is really very good, but I hope here it will be better. The Don Alfonso of Karajan was very, very light, intimate, ‘in the air.’ We were whispering our parts. It is very difficult to sing without voice--you can do this on a record, but not in a big theater like you have here. Here, you must sing , and then if you sing you must put some strength in the personality.

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“But the basic character is the same, because the libretto is very good . . . and the music too,” Bruscantini adds, laughing.

“Alfonso is not as cynical as many directors like to make him. Misogynist, yes, but not so cynical. If you understand the Neapolitan people well, you know that this is nature. For someone who looks only on the outside, maybe this is cynicism. But for me, it’s life.”

Bruscantini has been attracted to character, or buffo, roles from the beginning. He sang Leporello before doing Don Giovanni, Dr. Bartolo before Figaro in “Barbiere di Siviglia,” Don Pasquale befor Dr. Malatesta, and added Guglielmo in “Cosi” only after gaining a reputation as Don Alfonso.

This reversal of a common operatic trend led to some confusion in important places. Rudolf Bing invited him to the Met for his well-known Bartolo, but Bruscantini preferred Figaro at that moment and the engagement fell through. Instead, Chicago saw his U.S. debut as Rossini’s barber in 1961. A Met bow did not transpire until 20 years later, as Taddeo in “L’Italiana in Algeri.”

His repertory (career total: 154 roles in 113 operas) still includes “serious” parts too, such as Iago in “Otello” and the four villains in “Tales of Hoffmann,” which he recently performed in Madrid opposite Alfredo Kraus.

The genial Bruscantini speaks with great warmth of colleagues: Kraus (“a formidable technique”), Italo Tajo (“for me, he was the ‘top’ ”), Dorothy Kirsten (“una bella donna”), Beniamino Gigli (“all Italians are mad for Gigli”), Mirella Freni (“very far above the ordinary”).

Both Bruscantinis expressed admiration for director John Houseman, who staged the Dallas Opera’s 1985 “Otello,” praising him both as man and artist.

The baritone’s eyes lose some of their twinkle only when he discusses the future of the art of singing.

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“In Italy the voices are not changed. They are as good as before. The way of speaking Italian is absolutely right for singing. But there are no more good teachers of voice. And there are hardly any real coaches.

“When I began, La Scala had no fewer than eight great coaches, each better than the next-- formidabile! Now it is difficult to find a decent pianist in an Italian theater. The two best coaches at La Scala are Americans. We are finding good singers more and more rarely because the voices, the talents are missing the guidance.”

To help rectify this situation, Bruscantini spends an increasing amount of his time teaching. This means gradually cutting back on activities in the theater, where for many years he has worn two hats: singer and stage director.

He particularly loves the challenge of combining both disciplines. When he staged and sang the leading role in Verdi’s unsuccessful early opera “Un Giorno di Regno” at the Wexford (Ireland) Festival, one London critic said that had the work had this production originally, it would not have failed.

In spite of the satisfaction engendered by such accomplishments, teaching clearly is becoming Bruscantini’s top priority. His wife reports that it is the students who are exhausted after lessons, while “Maestro” is hardly aware that several hours have elapsed.

Though he is sorry that injuries sustained in an automobile accident kept him from singing Don Magnifico in “La Cenerentola” at the Music Center last season, regret is scarcely a part of this artist’s vocabulary, “except, well . . .” (a mock sigh) “if I had only been a tenor, I could have sung my dream role, Andrea Chenier.”


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