Bruno Bartoletti is Gone: William Bolcom Lives On


Bruno Bartoletti (Sesto Fiorentino, 10 June 1926 – Florence, 9 June 2013])

Bruno Bartoletti, for decades a towering figure in the American operatic landscape, passed away this June.

For a man who died as Bartoletti did just a day before he would have turned 87, the traditional consolation is that he lived a long and full life. Here those aren’t just words: he did indeed!

In the photo above you see Bartoletti in September 2007, at the start of a rehearsal of La Traviata.

opera-insideHis significance? Bartoletti – a man who began life as the son of a blacksmith in Florence, Italy, spent much of it, the years 1964 to 2007, in positions of leadership at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, Illinois, as the conductor of its orchestra, as its artistic director, and finally in the period 1999 to 2007, as artistic director emeritus. But a very active still-engaged emeritus at that!

Between the blacksmith shop and Chicago there was a gig with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the job of staff pianist with the Teatro Comunale Florence, and a December 1953 debut as a conductor, still at the Teatro Comunale. That first conducting assignment? Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Rigoletto is never more than a click away. Here, if you please.

Chicago, that Toddlin’ Town

opera-outsideBut let’s turn at last to the legacy he left in Chicago. Bartoletti almost single-handedly made the Lyric Opera in that city a force in the world opera scene, and he did so in large part by espousing the Italian tradition of Puccini and Verdi, so much so that the Lyric Opera has become known in some quarters as “La Scala West.”

As rich as the Italian tradition was and is, Bartoletti also knew enough to live in the present. Matthew A. Epstein, Bartoletti’s successor at the Lyric Opera, has said this: “Though the gods of Verdi and Puccini and Donizetti were high in his personal pantheon, what made Bruno different from a lot of Italian conductors of his day was that this was a man who was fascinated by the music of his own time.”

Three Bolcom Operas for the Lyric

William-BolcomHe was fascinated, in particular, by American composer William Bolcom, with whom the Lyric created a partnership at the conductor’s suggestion. Thus, three of Bolcom’s commissioned operas had their premieres at Lyric in the period 1992-2004, McTeague; A View from the Bridge; and A Wedding.

McTeague was an adaptation of an 1899 novel by Frank Norris: a bleak tale of a couple’s descent into poverty when the titular character, the husband, is banned from the practice of dentistry through the machinations of a former friend. McTeague kills his wife and, in time, his former friend as well, and is near death himself, alone in Death Valley, as the novel ends.

Edward Rothstein, writing in The New York Times upon this premier, described the opera as “full of finely rendered musical numbers, given exemplary performances by the cast and orchestra:” and praised Bolcom for his “ability to suggest atmosphere and character in just a few measures.”

A View from the Bridge was Bolcom’s re-working of a play by Arthur Miller of the same name (and Miller created the libretto for the opera). The play and opera are about a man who gives sanctuary to a pair of illegal immigrants from Italy, and who later turns them in to the immigration authorities, an act of betrayal that leads to his own disgrace and death.

The above link is to a YouTube clip that in turn comes from a recent (2011) production of this opera in the Rome Opera Theater. In the first part of that clip, taking up roughly the first two minutes, the lead character, Eddie Carbone (played here by Kim Josephson) is pretending to teach one of the immigrants how to box. The trainee boxer is a fellow named Rodolfo whom Carbone regards as hopelessly effeminate, who has been wooing Carbone’s niece. The lesson is an excuse for getting in a good punch.

a-score-of-considerable-inventionTim Page of The Washington Post has written that the music of this opera is “a score of considerable invention and power that complements and enhances the action with rare acuity.”

The final opera of Bolcom’s three for Bartoletti and the Lyric Opera, A Wedding, was again an adaptation, this time of much lighter fare, a (mostly) comic film that Lion’s Gate Films released into movie theatres in 1978. Directed by Robert Altman,” The Wedding” uses a high-society catered affair to explore the union of an old money and a new money family, from a variety of points of view.

A Confession

Because of the nature of the form, operas often have to trim down their source materials – an operatic plot has to be linear, its subplots few. Altman loves his subplots, and the film version of The Wedding had an impossibly convoluted plot, carried by a congeries of characters.

Turning it into an opera, Bolcom trimmed matters down considerably, and focused attention on the bride’s parents, Tulip and Snooks Brenner, and the bride’s younger sister Buffy.

I must confess that when I began work on this column I intended only a farewell to Bartoletti, but that my material has gotten away from me, I have included more than I initially intended on Bolcom. Bolcom, who was born in 1938, is still very much with us, and of course I wish him continued health and prosperity.

manon-lescautI do expect that his name will go down in music history intertwined with that of Bertoletti and these three works commissioned by the Lyric Opera, though as it happens Bolcom has composed much else. If I’m right, the conjunction is fair.

Let’s return to Mr. Bartoletti, though, to say our proper goodbyes. He left Chicago at last in 2007 and returned to Italy, where he continued to work. His final conducting gig, at the age of 84, was a production of Puccini’s work, Manon Lescaut in Florence, in February 2011.

So we can close as Bertoletti would have wanted us to, as he himself closed, with the music of that Puccini masterpiece. This music for this performance was conducted by Maestro Bertoletti in 1968.




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