Bruno Bartoletti, the Florentine maestro who as principal conductor and artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago helped shape its reputation both for stellar productions of Italian masterpieces and for adventurous modern works, died on Sunday, the day before his 87th birthday, in Florence.
His death was announced by Lyric and by Teatro Comunale in Florence, with which he was also associated for many years.
Mr. Bartoletti’s work with Lyric spanned most of its history, an affiliation bracketed by operas of Verdi. He was 30 when he made his American debut there, conducting “Il Trovatore” in 1956, two years after the company’s founding; he made his final appearance there in 2007 with “La Traviata.”
In between he led the Lyric orchestra in nearly 600 performances of more than 50 different operas. He was named co-artistic director of the company, along with Pino Donati, in 1964, and sole artistic director in 1975, a post he held until 1999.
Acknowledged as a superb interpreter of the 19th- and early-20th-century music of his great countrymen, Mr. Bartoletti had a wide repertory at the Lyric — sometimes called “La Scala West” — embracing other musical traditions and modern music, from Slavic works like Smetana’s “Bartered Bride” and Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” to Alban Berg’s severe, atonal “Wozzeck.”
In 1978, Mr. Bartoletti conducted the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Paradise Lost.” In 1964, in Florence, he conducted the Italian premiere of the rarely performed early Shostakovich opera “The Nose,” which was adapted from a subversive story by Gogol and which had been suppressed in the Soviet Union.
Matthew A. Epstein, who succeeded Mr. Bartoletti as Lyric’s artistic director, said in an interview on Wednesday that it was Mr. Bartoletti’s passion for modern music that led the company to include American and 20th-century European works each season.
It was Mr. Bartoletti, Mr. Epstein said, who suggested that the company forge a partnership with the American composer William Bolcom. He wrote three commissioned operas that had their premieres at Lyric from 1992 to 2004: “McTeague,” based on the novel by Frank Norris; “A View From the Bridge,” an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play; and “A Wedding,” based on the film by Robert Altman, who directed the opera as well.
“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,” Mr. Epstein said.
Mr. Bartoletti brought the young Italian conductors Daniele Gatti and Riccardo Chailly to Lyric for their American debuts, and he encouraged young American talent as well: Leonard Slatkin, Dennis Russell Davies and George Manahan conducted at Lyric, and a 25-year-old Peter Sellars directed “The Mikado” there in 1983.
“Bruno pushed Lyric forward at a time when it could have been stagnating, settling into the traditional repertory,” William Mason, Lyric’s general director emeritus, said on Wednesday. “He brought in new stage directors, more theatrical productions than we had been used to. As a conductor, baton technique was not his strong point, but there was an innate musicality and sensitivity in him, an understanding of singers and what they needed.”
Among the singers with whom he worked at Lyric were the sopranos Catherine Malfitano and Renata Tebaldi; the mezzo-sopranos Grace Bumbry and Marilyn Horne, and the tenors Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Richard Tucker.
Mr. Bartoletti was born on June 10, 1926, in Sesto Fiorentino, near Florence. His father, Umberto, was a blacksmith who played clarinet in a local band and inspired Bruno’s interest in music. He played the piccolo as a boy, and his talent was recognized by a teacher whose husband, the sculptor Antonio Berti, recommended him to the Florence Conservatory. There he studied flute and piano and became a pianist at a center for opera training.
He assisted a number of leading conductors, including Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vittorio Gui and Tullio Serafin. A longtime friend, Luigi Serra, said in an interview that during World War II, Mr. Bartoletti entertained American troops in Florence by playing the piano, and that he spoke warmly of his first contacts with Americans, the music of Cole Porter and of America in general.
“People would say he brought so much to Chicago, but he would say it didn’t matter, Chicago gave him more,” Mr. Serra said. “He always said Chicago gave him everything.”
Mr. Bartoletti made his conducting debut at Teatro Comunale with “Rigoletto” in 1953. He made his Lyric debut in 1956 as a replacement. When Mr. Serafin, who had been scheduled to conduct “Il Trovatore” there, became ill, the baritone Tito Gobbi recommended Mr. Bartoletti to one of the Lyric’s founders, Carol Fox.
Mr. Bartoletti, who rarely strayed from the opera podium to conduct symphonic works, was not known to be especially peripatetic. But he nonetheless conducted at the Rome Opera, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, Geneva’s Grand Théâtre and Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. He spent summers at his home in Florence.
His wife, Rosanna, whom he had known since childhood, died in 2011. He is survived by two daughters, Chiara and Maria, and five grandchildren.
“One more thing to say about him,” Mr. Epstein said. “He had a wonderful marriage, wonderful children, a beautiful home. He was a happy man.”