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.
I was lucky to see Milnes in recital in the early 70’s. Mesmerizing. Not just the incredible vocal beauty, but the power to pull you into the emotion of the music. He sang “Per me giunto” and even tho I was then unfamiliar with Don Carlo, I was so imeshed I could not move. I wanted to jump up and scream Bravo!! But my knees were as water. He sang Shenandoah for an encore, very softly, slowly, so gently. Again mesmerizingly, incredibly beautiful.
I agree with your rating! Hvorostovsky is the best. But I miss Piero Cappuccilli from the list of the past…he was very good Count.
I have recently discovered these articles by Neil Kurtzman. It is a pleasure to read them for they are very interesting. Listening to all the baritones presented here for the aria Il balen del suo sorriso I was wondering why do you think that from all of them Hvorostovsky is the best. I have listened as carefully as I can and I have to say that the most beautiful line of singing belongs without a doubt to Fischer-Dieskau, although his high notes are not as strong and passionate as I would like them to be. I also have to say that I enjoyed very much Apollo Granforte, Lawrence Tibbett and Robert Merrill. Actually from all of them I think the Merrill sounds the most like il conte di Luna. I also think that Ettore Bastianini has a place among the baritones presented here. I am not saying that Hvorostovsky doesn’t sing well, but I have to ask why does he not connect the notes in “infonde” and I am referring here to the last two notes for this word. The end of the aria he sings it very beautifully, but I find there is not enough passion when he sings “l’amor”. In my opinion that word has to be sung with power and passion as it is it, the love for Leonora, that consumes the count. Some high notes before the end of the aria sound pushed and not very confident, not very well supported. Listening to all the baritones presented in this article, I think I would leave Hvorostovsky and Milnes at the end of the list. Leonard Warren has a wonderful voice. It must have been a real pleasure to hear him live, but I am not sure he is the best baritone for the part. I can see him better as Germont in La Traviata or even more as Rigoletto.
Thanks for your comments. Opinions are, of course personal. I heard most of these singers in the opera house. Warren, in my opinion, was far and away the best. Recording don’t capture the organ-like size of his voice nor do they convey the sheer beauty of his sound. The ease of his high notes was astounding. I’ve never heard a Verdi baritone who could come close. Cornell MacNeil at his best (early 60’s) was also wonderful as was Sherrill Milnes.
No Bastianini or Cappuccilli? Both were divine. Bastianini was probably the best Luna to this day, although it’s hard to choose from so many wonderful singers.
I think the author nailed it. I went back and listened to all of the recordings and one can’t deny the excellent vocal qualities of the singers. But to me , what stood out or rather what was lacking was the emotional color that is so much a part of Hvorostovsky’s performances. I listened to 2002 when his voice was very strong, and very emotive. I listened to 2011, where the color of his emotions seemed to change and run deeper. Earlier on he had said that his teachers taught him how to feel. However, his son was born in 2003 and his daughter in 2007 and I have to believe that his relationship with them altered him emotionally. In 2011, he seemed able to bridge the emotions and the voice in a less contrived and more natural way. Unfortunately, I could not find on-line his final MET 2015 performance of this work. I would have liked to have compared all three performances. However, with all the beautiful baritones out there, Dmitri’s ability to integrate emotions with his beautiful, rich baritone, I think makes his performance of this piece the most memorable and it should be used as a basis of comparison for all to come. God rest his soul.