Feature Obituary – Carlo Felice Cillario

Written by: Kevin Rogers

Carlo Cillario (right) with, from left, Renato Cioni, Franco Zeffirelli and Maria Callas at the Royal Opera House in January 1964. ©Les Lee

In 1964 Franco Zeffirelli’s new production of Tosca (which was only retired in 2006) opened at Covent Garden, with Maria Callas as the heroine and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. In the pit was Carlo Felice Cillario, embodying the ideal that it is the singers who are the stars of the show, and not the conductor. The music director of the Royal Opera at the time, Georg Solti, sat in the audience for this most historic of opening nights.

Cillario was born on 7 February 1915 at San Rafael in Mendoza, Argentina, though his family was from Bologna. The young Cillario was a gifted violinist but, by his own account, he broke his wrist whilst playing football and so turned to conducting. In 1961 he conducted Glyndebourne’s first production, again by Zeffirelli, of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and, in 1970 in Barcelona, he conducted Montserrat Caballé’s first Norma. Cillario is widely credited for persuading Caballé to sing bel canto repertoire for which she would achieve international acclaim. He worked with Caballé and Luciano Pavarotti in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera (1985) in another Zeffirelli production.

Beyond the 1964 Tosca Cillario received excellent notices for Bellini’s La sonnambula (1971) with Renata Scotto, and, the following year, La traviata, with Caballé, Nicolai Gedda and Victor Braun, both for Royal Opera. Gobbi further featured in Cillario’s Australian debut, again as Scarpia, at the Adelaide Festival. It was in Australia that Cillario spent most of the rest of his career, where he led Opera Australia for fifteen years until retiring to Bologna in 2003. He died there at the age of 92 on 13 December 2007.

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