Fausto Cleva studied music first in his home town at the Trieste Conservatory and later at the Milan Conservatory, and made his professional conducting debut at the age of seventeen at the Teatro Carcano, Milan, leading Verdi’s La traviata. He was engaged by Giulio Gatti-Casazza to be the assistant chorusmaster for the 1920–1921 season of the Metropolitan Opera, New York, the company with which he was to be closely associated for the rest of his life. He gradually worked his way up the musical hierarchy of the Metropolitan Opera, first as chorusmaster, then as assistant conductor and finally as a conductor. In addition to his work in New York during the winter months, Cleva conducted elsewhere: between 1934 and 1963 he was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Summer Opera. He appeared with the San Francisco Opera during its 1942–1943 season, and later between 1949 and 1955; and as chief conductor of the Chicago Opera Company for two years from 1944 to 1946 he helped to improve the standards of operatic performance in the city. He also toured quite extensively, conducting opera in Canada, Cuba, Italy and Sweden; and appeared with the Swedish Royal Opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1959, directing Rigoletto. He died while conducting a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo at the Herodes Atticus Theatre in Athens, shortly after celebrating his fiftieth anniversary as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Company.
At the Metropolitan Opera Cleva conducted the Italian repertoire almost exclusively, and between 1950 and 1971 he led six hundred and fifty-seven performances of twenty-seven different operas. Recordings of many of these performances have been preserved through the Metropolitan Opera’s regular Saturday afternoon broadcasts. While in Italy Cleva had worked with the composer Mascagni, and he proved to be a powerful and sympathetic conductor of operas of the verismo school, as recordings of his performances of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (Metropolitan Opera, 1954) and Catalani’s La Wally (Carnegie Hall, 1968) clearly demonstrate. His conducting of the operas of Puccini was also highly idiomatic (La Bohème, Metropolitan Opera, 1951; Tosca, Metropolitan Opera, 1965).
Cleva’s commercial recording career falls into three distinct parts. During the early 1950s he directed a number of complete recordings of Metropolitan Opera productions for Columbia-USA, notably Gounod’s Faust, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and the double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. These were perfectly acceptable readings, if at times without the fire displayed in Cleva’s contemporaneous live performances. In addition he conducted many of the accompaniments for the arias recorded by singers under contract to Columbia, such as Richard Tucker. He went on to conduct several of the recordings released during the late 1950s by the short-lived Metropolitan Opera Club, including the Club’s issues of Verdi’s Aida and Rigoletto, as well as several verismo operas. Cleva then returned to the recording studios of RCA in 1964 for what is undoubtedly his finest commercial recording: Verdi’s Luisa Miller, with Anna Moffo and Carlo Bergonzi. This recording was one of the first to give the early and middle period operas of Verdi their full musical weight. Later he also recorded for Decca Catalani’s La Wally with Renato Tebaldi and Mario del Monaco. Cleva was a completely reliable and stylish conductor of the core Italian operatic repertoire, who at his best, as his interpretation of Luisa Miller and many of his live performances show, could be much more than this.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).