No composer wrote so much great music for baritone as did Giuseppe Verdi. In Italian opera the baritone is usually a villain, or the guy who doesn’t get the girl, or an older protagonist. But regardless, Verdi usually has him sing like an angel. Nowhere is this more so than in the second act of Il Trovatore where the Count Di Luna sings a melody that’s more than angelic; it’s divine. The count is possessed by a mad passion for the soprano. So lunatic is his desire that he forgets he’s a baritone and actually thinks he can get the girl. Of course, she’d rather take poison than be with him which she does two acts later.
‘Il balen’ (the words in Italian and English are below) is the supreme test of a lyric baritone. The aria is one long cantilena. The demands on the singer are extraordinary. He must make this very difficult song sound effortless throughout its high tessitura while conveying the extraordinary feeling it denotes. The beauty of the thing is compelling even after you’ve heard it 100 times.
Leonard Warren (1911-960) set the standard for Verdi baritones during his more than 20 years at the Metropolitan Opera. This recording made at the peak of his powers shows why. It has grace, sensitivity, and the easy high notes that uniquely were his. Warren – Il balen.
Tita Ruffo (1877- 1955) had a voice that amazed all who heard it. We can only guess what it sounded like in the house when he was in his prime. His approach to ‘Il Balen’ is to overpower it with sheer vocal force. The listener is amazed, but there’s not trace of subtlety. Ruffo Il Balen.
Ruffo’s contemporary, Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955) had a dark an focused baritone that was used with great subtlety. Clearly the first quarter of the 20th century was a great time for Verdi baritones. Stracciari Il Balen.
The wonderfully named Apollo Granforte (1886-1975) made his career mainly in Italy. He had a rich voice, not as dark as Ruffo’s or Stracciari’s. He finesse’s the high note near the end. But his interpretation is still outstanding. Granforte Il Balen.
As far as I can tell, Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) never sang the count. But his recording of ‘Il Balen” shows that this was opera’s loss. He was the first great American operatic baritone. Alcohol and hard living cut short his career, but in the 1930’s he was just about as good as a baritone could be. Tibbett Il Balen.
Robert Merrill (1917-2004) had as beautiful a baritone sound as can be imagined. His only problem was at the top of his range. Verdi’s highest notes often gave him trouble. This can be heard in this otherwise outstanding rendition. At the end of the aria he shorts the high note. Had his top been freer he’d have been the greatest baritone of all time. His difficulty above the staff was most noticeable in live performances. He could get around it on studio recordings. Merrill Il balen.
One does not typically associate the count with Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau (1925-2012), but his artistry is so great that he easily overcomes any lack of a big Italianate sound. Fischer-Dieskau Il Balen.
Sherrill Milnes (1935 – ) sang the count 37 times at the Met. He was firmly in the tradition of great American Verdi baritones. His voice was rich and at its peak had all the high notes needed for the great Verdi roles. Milnes Il Balen
The best contemporary exponent of Verdi’s jealousy-tortured baritone is Dmitri Hvorostovsky (1962 – ). The Siberian singer has the right sound and style for this most difficult part. He seems to be the only baritone now active who has all the right stuff for Verdi. Hvorostovsky Il Balen.
Il balen del suo sorriso The flashing of her smile
D’ una stella vince il raggio! shines more than a star!
Il fungor del suo bel viso The radiance of her beautiful features
novo infonde in me coraggio!… Gives me new corage!…
Ah! l’ amor, l’ amor ond’ ardo Ah! Let the love that burns inside me
le favelli in mio favor! speak to her in my favour!
Sperda il sole d’ un suo sguardo Let the sun’s glance clear up
la tempesta del mio cor. the tempest raging in my heart.