Before the sound of Leonard Warren’s great baritone fades from living memory, I thought I’d try to recollect the impression he made on me during the 20 or so times I heard him sing at the old Met. Born Leonard Warenoff in 1911, he was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Like his colleague Rubin Ticker, he worked in the New York fur district centered around West 29th St. My father who was in the same business knew them both casually. Also like Tucker, Warren spent the great majority of his career in New York at the Met. He gave over 600 performances with the company which were about twice as many as gave everywhere else.
His obvious vocal talent got him a job in the Radio City Music Hall’s chorus. In 1938 he won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air. After a short period of study in Italy he returned to New York and joined the Met as a soloist. After a few years he was the dominant Italian baritone with the company, a position he held until he died onstage (1960) during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino. He death has been variously attributed to a massive cerebral hemorrhage or an equally massive heart attack. I can’t tell which diagnosis is correct.
George Bernard Shaw during his masquerade as Corno di Bassetto wrote frequently about Verdi’s baritones. Shaw whose brilliance was never tainted by wisdom was at this time a rabid partisan of Wagner’s operas and able only with difficulty to see the true merit of Verdi’s totally different operas. Nevertheless, his insights are always dazzling and sometimes insightful. He remarked, with a hint of disparagement, that Verdi’s baritone roles were written for the top third of the baritone range and were thus hard on the voice. It’s true that these parts are written for a high baritone. As Verdi had specific singers in mind when he wrote his operas it’s virtually certain that these baritones had voices that were comfortable with the high tessitura that is required by Verdi’s major baritone roles.
No composer came even close to writing as many great baritone parts as Verdi. He obviously wrote music that he knew could be performed well by the singers he had in mind while composing. The renowned Italian Baritone Felice Varesi was the first Macbeth, the first Rigoletto and the first Germont in La Traviata. Verdi used him so often that he must have had a baritone voice placed perfectly for the demanding roles Verdi assigned to him.
Leonard Warren was so perfect a Verdi baritone that he likely had a voice similar to that to that of the great Varesi. While Warren had extraordinary success in La Gioconda, Andrea Chenier, and Pagliacci it was in the great Verdi parts that he was unequaled. He is perhaps not as well known as he should be. This is partly because most of his performances were in New York , partly because he didn’t make a lot of commercial recordings, and likely most importantly recordings don’t capture the extraordinary sound his voice had in performance at the old Met. His sound was rich, round, of enormous size, and lacked a hard edge which made it better suited for Verdi than Puccini’s Baron Scarpia a role he frequently sang. His voice was so big that it called to mind a church organ. But it was the extension of the upper part of the voice that made him the greatest Verdi baritone I ever heard. He could vocalize to a tenor’s high C. High Gs and A-flats came out of him effortlessly. While his acting was pedestrian his vocal portrayals were intense and gripping. His vocal stamina was as unmatched as his high notes. Verdi can wear baritones out before the opera is over, but not Warren who sounded as fresh at the final curtain as he did in the first scene.
The first time I heard Warren was the Count Di Luna in Verdi’s frenetic masterpiece Il Trovatore. Neophyte though I was, it was clear that this was a voice that I was unlikely to hear matched by any other baritone. Il Balen sounded beautiful and easy when he sang it. It was strained and difficult when anyone else attempted it. Rigoletto is the supreme test of any Verdi baritone and Warren gave it all he had, which is to say that vocally no one could come close to him.
Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci doesn’t have much to do after singing the prologue. But the aria is so good and showy that it always attracts the star baritone even though the rest of the opera belongs to the tenor. Warren sang the role 40 times with the Met starting in a broadcast performance in 1943. His rendition of the (listen—>) Prologue was one of those experiences that stay with you forever. The two high notes at the end were enough to justify the time and expense of the entire evening.
He sang his first Rigoletto with the Met also in 1943 in another Saturday afternoon broadcast. He was a last minute substitute for another great American baritone Lawrence Tibbett. He sang 88 more performances of this stupendous baritone role with the company, the last on tour in Toronto in 1959. His impersonation of Verdi’s conflicted buffoon remains definitive. He was the only baritone I’ve heard in the role who could get everything out of (listen—>) Cortigiani, vil razza danata that Verdi put into the aria, from the anger at the beginning to the pleading at the end.
Amazingly the Met didn’t get around to Verdi’s Macbeth until 1959. I was at this performance with Warren in the title role. A lot of attention was given to Leonie Rysanek who made her debut as Lady Macbeth, a role originally intended for Maria Callas. She was outstanding as Verdi’s nightmare wife, but Warren was magnificent. (Listen—>) Pieta, rispetto, amore could make you feel sorry for the wretched Macbeth. Warren interpolated a high A-flat at the aria’s close.
Don Carlo, the vengeful brother, in La Forza Del Destino was one of Warren’s best roles. It was another role he first sang with the Met in his breakout year of 1943. It was in the middle of the baritone’s (listen—>) big solo (Urna fatale, etc) in the third act that he collapsed on March 4, 1960.
By all accounts Warren was a very difficult man. He expressed his opinions very forcefully. Even Rudolf Bing was intimidated. He wrote in his memoirs that he didn’t produce Falstaff until after Warren was dead because the knew that he would have insisted on singing the title role. Why he didn’t want Warren to sing the role Bing didn’t say. But it’s obvious that he didn’t want to confront the baritone about it.
Several great baritones have succeeded Warren at the Met, but none has been his match. On a night when Verdi was sung at the old Met and Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, and Leonard Warren were in the main roles Verdi’s shade must have been satisfied which was all the emotion the supreme composer, more ancient Roman than modern Italian, would allow himself.