I’ve listed the 10 tenors that I think were the best of those active in the 20th century. Obviously, this list is entirely subjective and reflects nothing more than my tastes and opinions. Readers are invited to submit their own lists in the comments section. I have tried to pick a selection for each tenor that shows him at his best and which also presents at least one of his unique characteristics. I have made no attempt to rank them. They are presented in the order of their birth. All of these singers had major careers at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Alas only one is still living.
Qual volutta trascorrere from Verdi’s I Lombardi has always been one of my favorite recordings by Enrico Caruso (1873-1921). In this 1912 recording he’s joined by Frances Alda and Marcel Journet. I’ve posted this piece before, but it’s so good that it deserves repetition.
March 20, 1890 was a good day for tenors. The next two tenors were born on that day. Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) was the preeminent Wager tenor since the advent of sound recordings. No other heldentenor is close to the great Dane. I’ve decided to present two excerpts of Melchior’s singing. First is the outburst Wälse! Wälse! which occurs in the first act of Die Walküre. While this interpretation is certainly not what Wagner had in mind, as an athletic feat it is on an Olympian level. You can take your dog for a walk around the block before Melchior finishes the second ‘Wälse’. The excerpt is from a 1940 performance at the Met. This is followed by the sword forging scene – Notung! Notung! – from Act 1 scene 3 of Siegfried. The Mime is Karl Laufkötter. After hearing Melchior in Wagner everyone else seems lilliputian.
Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) was the leading lyric Italian tenor of his era. His masterful vocal technique allowed him to sing spinto roles with success and without damage to his voice. Non Ti Scordar Di Me by Ernesto de Curtis shows the tenor’s famous ‘honeyed’ tones to great advantage.
Jussi Björling (1911-1960) was as close to perfection as a singer could get. While his voice was not big enough to sing Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot, on records he is the best there is. Nessun Dorma
Richard Tucker (1913-1975) is the only American on my list. About seven or eight years after his debut (1945) at the Met he morphed into a full fledged spinto. Va prononcer ma mort, Rachel quand du seigneur from the last act of Halevy La Juive recorded at a concert performance of the opera in London in 1971 shows the 58 year old tenor still in possession of his big sound. The British audience goes crazy after this reading.
Mario Del Monaco (1915-1982) was born to sing Verdi’s Otello. He was buried in his Otello costume. When del Monaco sang at the Met you could hear him on Staten Island. In the duet that concludes the second act of Otello he’s paired with another vocal miracle, Leonard Warren. This is from a 1958 Met performance. Si pel ciel
Both Giuseppe Di Stefano (1921-2008) and Franco Corelli (1921-2003) were born in the same year. Yet the former’s career was headed south at just about the same time as the latter’s was taking off. Di Stefano was known for the extraordinary beauty of his sound and the emotional content he uniquely added to the music he sang. Listen to O Sole Mio! sung like no one else ever performed it.
‘Plus blanche que la blanche’ From Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots sung in Italian as Bianca al par di neve alpina shows all of Corelli’s strengths – powerful tone, matchless breath control, and thrilling high notes. Add that he was tall and looked like a fifties movie star and you have a matchless package.
Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) was the most famous opera singer after the era of Maria Callas. Unfortunately he kept singing way past his best years. To hear him at his peak you have to go back to the sixties and seventies. Verrano a te from the first act of Lucia di Lammermoor shows both Pavarotti and Renata Scotto in prime form.
Placido Domingo (b 1941) had one of the greatest tenor voices every recorded. Though he’s recently been masquerading as a baritone and as a conductor, it’s as a tenor that he will be remembered. O paradis from Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine was recorded in 1972 in performance at the San Francisco Opera. The beauty and power of the sound the young Domingo produces is overwhelming.
I’ve listed 10 singers. Here’s a special case. Joseph Schmidt (1904-42) had one of most hauntingly beautiful voices yet recorded. Because of his small stature (about 5 feet even) he sang in perhaps only one staged opera. His career was made on radio, on records, and on film. His end was tragic and you can read about elsewhere on this site. He had perhaps the most complete technique of any tenor I’ve ever heard. He also could float a line like nobody since. His sound was dusky and middle European rather than Italianate. Gluck, das mir verblieb from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt shows the dreamy and utterly beautiful singing that Schmidt could produce.
Could have been a contender – Mario Lanza (1921-59). Had Lanza concentrated on opera instead of movies I think he’d have made the above list. Whose place would he have taken? If I had to drop one tenor from the list, I think it would be Pavarotti. Anyway, here’s Lanza’s 1950 recording of the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier. Interestingly, a third tenor born in 1921.