My piece on the 10 best tenors of the 20th century proved popular, so here’s a go at the 10 best baritones of the same epoch. Again, I emphasize that what follows is merely a personal opinion. I make no claim to omniscience. Readers are encouraged to make their own list. Actually, there are 11 baritones below. I was never good at arithmetic. There was only one American singer on my tenor list – Richard Tucker. Five of my baritones are American. I can’t explain why the US produces so many great baritones, but it’s a pleasing phenomenon. The singers are presented in the order of their birth.
Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was known as the King of the Baritones. His career lasted almost 50 years. His style of graceful yet dramatic singing was more typical of the 19th century than of the 20th. He had a silken line with a smooth register from bottom to the top of his range. His impeccable technique allowed him to sing at the highest level from his debut as a leading baritone at age 22 almost until his death. Below are two examples of his art. O sommo carlo is from the 3rd act of verdi’s Ernani. Jules Massenet was so impressed by Battistini’s singing that he adapted the title role of Werther for the baritone voice. Pourquoi me reveiller (sung in Italian) is a little different from the tenor version, but is still easily recognizable. Recently, Thomas Hampson has been singing the baritone version of this opera.
Mario Ancona (1860-1931) was born to a middle class Jewish family in Livorno. He had a major international career, singing 197 performances at the Met – all between 1893 and 1897. From 1906-08 he again sang in New York, this time with Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company. He, like Battistini, was a bel canto baritone. But he did sing all the big Verdi roles and the verisomo operas that were contemporaneous to his career. A tanto amor from Donizetti’s La Favorita shows the elegance of his vocal line and the beauty of his tone. Ah per sempre io ti perdi from Bellini’s I Puritani is another example of his propensity for bel canto. Di provenza il mar is sung with the same attention to line and style as are the bel canto arias. Unfortunately, Anona only made about 20 recordings, many of which have poor sound. Nevertheless, on the basis of what we have, a great artist.
Tita Ruffo (1877-1953) was to baritones what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He forever changed the way baritones sing. Endless power and trumpet-like high notes were the marks of his style. He was a force of nature, a miracle to all who heard him during his prime. His voice was gone by the time he was 50 and he spent the last third of his life in relative poverty. He had elected to take payment for his recordings up front rather than as a percentage of sales as did Caruso. Caruso’s estate earned more in record royalties than had the great tenor during his lifetime because of this decision. Ruffo also refused to teach saying that as had never really known how to sing it was unfair for him to teach what he did not know. Of course, he knew how to sing – he just was a natural who did not have to analyze what he did. The following three recordings give an idea of the power, darkness, and virility of his singing. Credo in un dio crudel from Verdi’s Otello, Zaza piccola zingara, from Leoncavallo’s Zaza, and Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Barber.
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960), born in Bakersfield, California, was the first great American operatic baritone. He joined the Met in 1923 appearing in secondary roles. But on January 2, 1925 singing Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff he created a sensation after his 2nd act monologue E sogno in which Ford thinks his wife has been unfaithful. Verdi put so much intensity into the piece that the listener for a few minutes thinks he’s back in Otello. Tibbett’s performance literally stopped the show. He had to take a solo bow before it could continue. He became the Met’s leading baritone for the next 15 years. A position he held until the advent of Leonard Warren. Eri tu was made in a studio. Tibbett was also a movie and radio star. High living and alcohol prematurely ended his career.
Leonard Warren (1911-60), born Leonard Warenoff in the Bronx, was the greatest baritone I ever heard in performance. He had everything – power, legato, effortless high notes. He could vocalize to a tenor’s high C. He made the bulk of his career at the Met, much to betterment of New York audiences and the loss to the rest of the opera world. Il balen from Trovatore and Nemico della patria from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier give proof to my assertion.
Also born in 1911 was the Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004). His career was almost entirely made in the Soviet Union. As far as I can tell, he sang everything in Russian. He made a solitary appearance at the Met as Amonasro in Aida, the day before Leonard Warren died onstage. He sang in Russian while everyone else used Italian. His recordings are all in Russian, irrespective of the original language. Verdi sounds quite different in Russian as does Lisitsian’s voice when he sings an Italian aria in Russian compared to the way it sounds in Russian opera. Accordingly, I’ve picked an aria written in Russian which show this great baritone’s voice to its best advantage. The Song of the Venetian Guest is from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko.
Tito Gobbi (1913-84) was most noted as a singing actor. His voice was not the extraordinary instrument that some of the other singers in this compendium had, but his interpretations were insightful and revealed nuances in the music he performed that were not realized by other singers. I was at his Met debut in 1956 as Scarpia in Tosca. His interpretation of the Bad Baron was beyond compare. His colleagues in that performance, among the most memorable I’ve ever attended, were Zinka Milanov, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Fernando Corena. The following two selections show Gobbi’s dramatic skill to great advantage – Pari siamo from Rigoletto and The Honor Monologue from Falstaff.
Robert Merrill (1917-2004), born in Brooklyn as Moishe Miller, had perhaps the most distinctive baritone voice since the start of the recording age. After just a few notes you can recognize his glorious sound. His career at the Met lasted 31 years. He gave the company 789 performances. After his Met days were over he became very well known for his singing of the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium where he wore a Yankee uniform with ‘1 1⁄2’ on its back. Though best known for his singing in Italian opera, he was also adept at its French incarnation. Avant de quiter from Gounod’s Faust and Vision fugitive from Massenet’s Herodiade show him at his best.
Cornell Macneil (1922-2011) was born in Minneapolis. Though he sang the works of many composers, he was best known as a Verdi baritone. During his peak years, the 1960s, his volcanic emissions would drive audiences wild. He sang 642 performances at the Met, 104 of them as Rigoletto – the role of his Met debut. Oh, de’ verd’anni miei from Ernani and Eri tu from Un Ballo in Maschera demonstrate why he was in such demand for the great Verdi baritone roles. The hard use of his voice resulted in a noticeable wobble that characterized the second half of his career.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) was best known for his singing of Lieder, but also appeared extensively in the opera house. He almost certainly is the most recorded singer since the invention of the gramophone. I would not be surprised to find his recording of several telephone directories. He was celebrated for the insight which he brought to everything he sang. To show his extraordinary versatility, I’ll start with Der Erlkönig , Franz Schubert’s colossal song written when the composer was only 18. Fischer-Dieskau recorded all 600+ of the composer’s songs. Next is Wagner’s O du mein holder from Tannhäuser. Last is In braccio alle dovizie from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, an opera that is performed far less than its merits deserve. It is sung in German.
Last up is the only baritone on this list who is still alive. Sherrill Milnes (b 1935) is from Downers Grove, Illinois. He made his Met debut in 1965 in the same performance of Faust that first presented Montserrat Caballé to Met audiences. Over the next several years he sang with increasing success. But what marked his arrival as a Verdi baritone of the highest distinction was the new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1968 that also featured Montserrat Caballé and Richard Tucker. Sacra la scelta e dun consorte (I’ve included the cabaletta) from the 1968 production, shows why Milnes was the leading Verdi baritone over the ensuing 20 years. In his more than 30 year career at the Met, Milnes sang 653 times with the company. Unfortunately his last years on stage were troubled by pitch problems.
Well, these are my “10” picks for the last century’s best baritones. Again, they are just the product of opinion. If you differ, post your choices in the comments section.