Nello Santi, Conductor With His Heart in Italian Opera, Dies at 88

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Nello Santi, a conductor who was one of the most authoritative interpreters of Italian opera, especially the works of Giuseppe Verdi, and a podium favorite of singers and orchestra players, died on Thursday at his home in Zurich. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his manager, Robert Lombardo, who said Mr. Santi had been treated for a blood infection.

In the podium Mr. Santi upheld a traditionalist approach that called for close adherence to the score and a gentle but firm insistence that singers avoid exaggerated flights of coloratura and prolonged showstopping high notes.

At his best, he achieved great clarity from his musicians, conducting scores with insight and a deep understanding of voices. Orchestras under his direction rarely drowned out singers, even those with lighter voices.

Cutting a portly figure and wielding a vigorous baton, Mr. Santi was a favorite of audiences at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he led close to 400 performances from 1962 to 2000, overwhelmingly of operas by Puccini and Verdi. Musicians and singers referred to him affectionately as “Papa Santi” and complained that New York critics underrated him.

While the critics rarely disparaged Mr. Santi outright, they could damn his performances with faint praise, using words and phrases like “traditional and serviceable,” “capable” or “always in control.” The critic Will Crutchfield of The New York Times once recalled being asked by the famed baritone Sherrill Milnes, “Are you the one who finally gave Nello Santi a good review?”

Reviews of Mr. Santi improved markedly in his later appearances at the Met, as appreciation grew for his loyalty to the old ways. “Only recently,” Mr. Crutchfield wrote in 1988, “now that capable, secure and idiomatic conducting of the standard Italian repertory is no longer to be taken for granted, have some observers begun to be curious about what goes into it.”

Nello Santi was born on Sept. 22, 1931, in Adria, a small town south of Venice, to Giovanni and Alfonsina (Fonso) Santi. His father was a grocer, and his mother was an elementary schoolteacher with a passion for classical music. When Nello was 3, she took him to a performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Thunderstruck, he had his parents replay a recording of the opera many times on their phonograph while he waved his arms about, as if conducting the orchestra.

As a child, Nello took piano lessons and learned to play the violin, viola and several wind instruments as well. He studied composition at the conservatory in Padua, and in 1951 he made his debut as conductor at Padua’s Teatro Verdi.

“Naturally, it was with ‘Rigoletto,’” Mr. Santi told the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera a half-century later.

As a young man at the Teatro Verdi, he followed the usual apprenticeship in provincial Italy of that era.

“At the beginning I did everything,” he told The Times in 1988. “I was a prompter, chorus master. I accompanied singers’ concerts. I even played the anvil onstage in “Il Trovatore” dressed as a Gypsy.”

Mr. Santi married Gabrielle Faeh in Zurich in 1959. She survives him, along with their twin sons, Gian Aldo and Gian Carlo; their daughter, Rosita Santi, a soprano; a sister, Rosanna Mori; and four grandchildren.

From Padua, Mr. Santi went on to conduct in West Germany, Austria, Britain, the United States and Switzerland, where he was music director of the Zurich Opera House from 1958 to 1969. He continued to conduct there for another four decades.

Mr. Santi did not limit himself to Italian composers. He once claimed that Richard Wagner was one of “the cults of my life.” But he reserved his greatest affection for Verdi. He could recall the most minute details of Verdi operas, citing phrases and chords that the composer often repeated with slight variations in his many works.

“I love all of Verdi,” Mr. Santi said. “But when he composed ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Il Trovatore’ and ‘La Traviata,’ he was in a profound state of grace.”

As a traditionalist, Mr. Santi identified with Arturo Toscanini’s style of conducting Italian operas, especially his approach to bel canto. Like Toscanini, he tried to strike a balance with singers, allowing them to shape phrases without taking excessive liberties. Thus, a duet from “La Traviata” conducted by Toscanini could last a minute less than the same duet in a performance led by later conductors who gave the soprano and tenor freer rein. Mr. Santi embraced the older, more restrained and less popular approach.

He frequently bemoaned what he considered Italy’s diminished role in the opera world, citing a decline in music schools, especially in the provinces, and a sharp reduction in the broadcast of classical music and opera. Because Italian conductors no longer served long apprenticeships covering every aspect of opera performances, he asserted, they had become too focused on the orchestra.

“Conductors today do not love song and they do not understand theater,” he said.

Singers responded enthusiastically to Mr. Santi’s direction. Plácido Domingo, who recorded often with Mr. Santi and made frequent stage appearances under his direction, repeatedly praised him in interviews.

Musicians hailed his virtuosity. “Nello Santi could sing any Italian opera vocal role from memory while conducting,” Les Dreyer, a retired violinist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, wrote in a letter to The Times in 2008. “And he would astound the orchestra at rehearsals by singing any instrumental passage, from memory, with a robust tenor voice.”

In Mr. Santi’s later years, critics were finally won over by his commitment to the Italian operatic tradition. Reviewing a performance of “Rigoletto” at the Met in 1984, Mr. Crutchfield hailed Mr. Santi’s feeling for the pulse and pacing of the opera, writing: “His is one of the last of that older generation of Italians who seem instinctively able to make an opera like this work. Grazie, maestro.”

While Mr. Santi’s career flourished outside of Italy, one of the truest homes of Italian opera, La Scala in Milan, long shunned him, apart from a brief engagement in 1971. But even La Scala came around. He was invited back for the 2017 season to lead “La Traviata,” with Anna Netrebko in the lead role. He continued that season, and the next, with performances of Verdi’s “Nabucco,” with Leo Nucci in the title role.

Mr. Santi announced several times that he would retire to his home in Riehen, a small town near Basel, Switzerland. But he would then make himself available to conduct the Basel Radio Orchestra or other ensembles.

“I am retired,” he said in a 1999 interview with Corriere del Ticino. “But I work more than before.”

Michael Cooper contributed reporting.


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