The definition I’m using here is this: A Met house tenor is one who has sung at least 500 performances in leading tenor roles with the company. Thus, comprimario singers are not included. Using this rule there are only six tenors who qualify. They are listed below in the order of their birth followed by the number of performances they gave with the Met. Two of these guys were born on the same day (Gigli and Melchior) so they’re listed alphabetically as well as chronologically. Domingo is still active, though as a baritone and conductor. I’ve given the total of his appearances with the company realizing that the number as a tenor is much less, but still (I think) above 500. I made no attempt to separate his performances by category.
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) 863
Giovanni Martinelli (1885-1969) 926
Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) 510
Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) 519
Richard Tucker (1913-75) 738
Placido Domingo (1941- ) 694
Obviously this is a very impressive list. Caruso sang his Met performances between 1903 to 1920. He sang Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci 116 times with the company! Everyone know the first act aria Vesti la giubba. The second act aria No! Pagliaccio non son from a dramatic perspective is even more effective. The great tenor’s singing is very impressive considering that all his recordings were made by shouting into a horn.
Giovanni Martinelli sang in Aida 124 times with the Met. As I’ve just finished with ‘Celeste Aida’ I’ll give you a sample of Martinelli’s singing in another Verdi piece – Invano Alvaro the duet from the last act of La Forza Del Destino. The baritone is Giuseppe De Luca who sang the exactly same number of Met performances as Martinelli. Martinelli had a giant career at the Met. On the basis of his recordings I can’t tell why. He bawls, has an unsteady tone, and plays horseshoes with the correct pitch. In short, I find it painful to listen to him. The fault must be mine given how successful he was.
Beniamino Gigli, on the other hand, had one of the most gorgeous tenor voices ever committed to posterity. He sang 505 times at the Met between 1920 and 1932 when he left the Met, ostensibly because he refused to take a cut in his fee during the Great Depression. He returned to the company in 1939 for his last five appearances. Though he sang well into the 50s, he was at his peak between 1920 and 1940. Thereafter, he got by on the basis of his remaining voice, reputation, and a considerable amount of vocal fudging.
Famous for his honeyed tone, he was at his best in lyric roles. The beauty of his voice is displayed in his recording of Una furtiva lagrima made during a recital. He sang Nemorino in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore 11 times at the Met. He also appeared in Tosca 11 times with the Met. His beautiful voice impresses with E lucevan le stelle, though I don’t think he gets as much from the aria as Di Stefano or Corelli.
Lauritz Melchior started as a baritone and then morphed into the leading heldentenor of his era. His Met career lasted from 1926 until 1950. All his performances, save one, were in Wagner operas. Verdi’s Otello was in his repertoire, but the Italian wing of the company “protested” and he was not allowed the role in New York. The one exception was March 19, 1935 when he sang the last act of Verdi’s masterpiece as part of the farewell gala for retiring general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza. He got rave reviews.
Melchior’s Wagner is all over the internet and as well as all points of the compass. So here’s a bit of what New York missed. Dio! mi potevi scagliar (in German) from the third act of Otello is opera’s greatest monologue of despair. Niun mi tema is Otello’s death scene. It depicts the Moor’s realization of the monstrous crime he has committed. Otello is the tenor’s Mount Everest. Melchior had enough voice for two Mount Everests. What is impressive is the subtlety he brings to both these pieces. His depth of interpretation seems to surpass that which he brought to his celebrated Wagner roles. What a loss that we don’t have a complete recording of the opera by him.
Richard Tucker sang at the Met from 1945 to 1974. He debuted at the Met in January 1945. This appearance was his first in any opera anywhere. World War II kept the great European singers away from America creating an early opportunity for him. Listening to his early recordings you hear a thin lyric tenor rather than the splendid spinto that he miraculously morphed into during the early to mid 50s. Thereafter his singing was characterized by a clarion middle voice and blazing high notes. He and his voice survived a heart attack in 1962 that he kept a secret. The only change in his singing after his coronary was a breath artfully taken at places that he could previously sing continuously.
Here are Tucker and Robert Merrill in a boffo performance (Met 1961) of the Sleale duet from the third act of La Forza Del Destino. If I ever get around to a ‘Met House Baritones’ article Merril will be on it. Tucker’s singing of Rachel quand du seigneur from a 1970 London performance Halevy’s La Juive drove the Brits crazy. The Met’s plan to mount the opera for Tucker was extinguished by his sudden death in 1975.
Placido Domingo is the 8th wonder of the world. There seems to be nothing he cannot do. I can’t think of another operatic career that matches his. No need to say any more. O paradis is from a 1972 performance of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine in San Francisco.