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Salvatore Licitra, the unexpected tenor, dies at 43

September 5, 2011 |  2:41 pm

Salvatore Licitra

Salvatore Licitra’s singing career began just over a decade ago in Parma, Italy, and ended Monday in a Sicilian hospital, where he died at 43 of injuries from a Vespa accident 10 days ago. His brief career contained highs and lows more dramatic than his tragic operatic roles.

At the age of 30, Licitra was running a graphic arts business in Milan, taking voice lessons on the side.  Two years later, he was handpicked by Riccardo Muti to sing at the opening night of La Scala in a new production of “Il Trovatore.”  The following year, he was flown across the Atlantic on the Concorde to make his Metropolitan Opera debut at the last minute in "Tosca," replacing Luciano Pavarotti, the most famous Italian tenor since Caruso.

Licitra's performance as Cavaradossi that night was not note-perfect (although he held the Act II “Vittoria!” longer, clearer and stronger than any tenor I had ever witnessed — or have heard since), but it heralded a possible successor to Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Jose Carreras, who by then were retiring the taxing, heroic roles that had made them household names.

This “fourth tenor” label was a burden to the singer, but Licitra’s woes though, involved more than high expectations. The singer and his record label rushed out unrefined recordings, Licitra did not take care of his voice in the years after his meteoric success, and his career began a downward trajectory. 

A Covent Garden debut as Alvaro in “La Forza Del Destino” was a disappointment and by the time he made his Los Angeles Opera debut in 2005 (also in “Tosca”) his vocal production was downright poor.  He began studying again with Carlo Bergonzi after this and his technique began to improve by the time he returned to Los Angeles the next year to play the title role in “Don Carlo.”

Later that year, however, the tenor suffered an accident in a New York taxi cab, injuring his rotator cuff and he had to sing Pagliacci at the Met with his arm in a sling. Afterward he suffered other injuries and his appearances at major opera houses were marked by cancellations (“Ernani” and “Trovatore” at the Met, a “Carmen” at San Diego Opera this past May) and uneven performances.

Some of his best nights were concert performances of operas, such as a thrilling  “Un Ballo Un Maschera” at Carnegie Hall early in 2004, when the baby-faced singer’s lively presence filled the stage, even if he was never a nuanced actor.

Those lucky to hear him on one of his good vocal nights — in particular his turns as Luigi in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” heard at the Met and its HD broadcast in 2007 as well as what turned out to be his final Los Angeles appearances in the William Friedkin staging that opened three years ago — will remember his robust sound and the promise of what could have been.

His last operatic performance was July 30 at Chicago’s Ravinia festival under the baton of James Conlon, where he again sang Caravadossi in “Tosca.” 

Reached by phone in Los Angeles, Conlon said, “I was a big supporter of Salvatore from the beginning … and it’s astonishing, to have been with him singing three to four weeks ago and now he’s gone. He was an important voice.”

Italian papers were reporting Monday that Licitra’s body will lie in state in the Teatro Massimo Bellini in Sicily.  A distinguished end to an unexpected career and an unfortunately short, if sometimes soaring, life.

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Photo: In 2006, Salvatore Licitra played the title role of "Don Carlo" at Los Angeles Opera. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

where he again sang Caravadossi in “Tosca.” 

 
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