Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) – born in Bakersfield, California – was the first in a succession of great American baritones who have been dominant performers at the Metropolitan Opera and throughout the world during much of the 20th century. He made his Met debut in 1923 as Lavitsky in Boris Godunov. For the next few years he alternated between comprimario and secondary leading roles like Valentin in Faust and Silvio in Pagliacci.

On January 2, 1925 fame descended on him like a Jovian bolt. He was Ford in a new production of Falstaff. Here’s how critic Olin Downes described the event – now one of the Met’s most legendary evenings.

At the end of the second act comes the scene between Ford and Falstaff, in which Ford becomes convinced that his spouse is actually plotting infidelity, and alone on stage, intones his monologue of suspicion and jealousy, “E sogno.”

This scene Mr. Tibbett delivered with a quality of vocalism and interpretation which constituted one of the highest points, and one of the strongest individual performances of the evening. As the curtain fell the house burst into prolonged applause. In response to the applause, which kept up and increased in volume for many minutes, various of the principals appeared. Then Mr. Tibbett and Mr. Scotti appeared together and received ovations.

At last it was evident that the audience wished Mr. Tibbett and none other for its attentions. But this singer did not come before the curtain alone. The commotion in the theatre increased. Some began to stamp, whistle and catcall. Cries of “Tibbett” came from various parts of the house. There was no response. For awhile no one appeared before the curtain; the lights were lowered and Mr. Serafin, the conductor, raised his baton for the next scene to begin.

He found it impossible to proceed. Pandemonium grew. Even the elect in the boxes began to take more than a polite interest in the proceedings. The audience, justly or unjustly, had gained the impression that Mr. Tibbett was not allowed to come before them and receive their appreciation and had determined that the performance should go further until he had done so.

It was Mr. Serafin who ended the business. He sent one of the orchestra players back stage to request that Mr. Tibbett be allowed to appear. The curtains parted, the young singer stepped to the front of the stage, bowed low and repeatedly to the excited assembly, and the performance proceeded. An American audience had decided that one of its own nationality should be properly recognized for his talent, and that ended the incident.

It took several seasons before he moved into the big baritone parts, but in doing so he became a star beyond the limits of the opera house. He made movies and was regular on the radio. He was a celebrity. He even made the cover of Time when that meant something.  But he also led a very hard life and had a major alcohol problem. By age 40 his best days were history and his voice was virtually completely obliterated at 45.

But at its best, Tibbett’s baritone was a wondrous instrument. Dark in its middle and low range, free and easy on top. He was slim and a fine actor. He could manage his dynamic range with ease and beauty and had everything a singer could ask for before he pissed it away.

When the title role in Falstaff passed to him he refused to let the young Leonard Warren sing Ford, saying that he wasn’t going to let Warren do to him what he had done to Scotti. I’ll start with a few studio recordings and then move to those made during Met broadcasts in the the 30s. Remember that the latter recording were made off the air about 80 years ago, so the sound on some is far from ideal.

It didn’t take too long for Tibbett to move from Silvio in Pagliacci to Tonio. His rendition of the Prologue shows all his strengths even if he does declaim a part of it that should be sung. His interpretation of the  Toreador Song from Carmen is full of swagger and is secure from top to bottom. He seems to be out for a speed record with Largo Al Factotum from The Barber of Seville, an opera he never sang at the Met.

Renato in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera was another role Tibbett never sang at the Met, though his voice was ideal for the part. This recording of Eri tu  shows what the New York audiences missed.

The remaining selections are from Met broadcasts. Scintille, diamant is from a 1937 performance of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. Tibbett sang all four villains in the opera. The interpolated high note near the aria’s beginning is horribly sharp and was a bad idea.

Die Todesahnung, O du mein holder Abendstern from Wagner’s Tannhäuser was recorded in 1936. Flagstad and Melchior were also in the cast. Try to get three protagonists like these today.

Di Provenza from Verdi’s La Traviata is from a 1939 broadcast. The tenor briefly heard at the beginning and end is Richard Crooks. The interpretation is fine, though a certain husbanding of vocal resources is noticeable and the power of the voice is not what it was a few years earlier.

Credo in un Dio crudel from Verdi’s Otello is from a 1938 performance. Tibbett’s reading is appropriately subtle, powerful, and menacing. His voice is still up to the hard demands of Verdi.

Tibbett was the Met’s first Simon Boccanegra. Interestingly, Leonard Warren made his Met debut in Simon in 1939 with Tibbett in the title role. Here is the great scene beginning Plebe! Patrizi!. The excerpt includes the ensemble that follows the baritone’s monologue.

Finally Rigoletto. Tibbett sang Marullo in Verdi’s opera at the Met in 1923. He didn’t get to sing the title role at the house until 1935. He sang the role 32 times in New York. Here are the deformed jester’s two arias – Pari siamo and Cortigiani, vil razza. Unfortunately the concluding high note in the former cuts out before it’s finished.

Tibbett clearly belongs on the very short list of the greatest baritones of the 20th century, a disproportionate number of whom were American. One can only wonder if the list is now complete or will be added to in the 21st century.