No composer gave the baritone so many great gifts as did Giuseppe Verdi. Renato, the baritone, has an aria in Act 3 of Un Ballo in Maschera that is a masterpiece of conflicted feelings, pain, betrayal, and revenge. Renato’s wife, Amelia, is in love with his best friend Riccardo the governor of colonial Massachusetts or in some productions King Gustav III of Sweden. This extramarital affair is chaste, but when Renato discovers it he suspects what any wronged husband would, ie Amelia and his best friend are getting it on.
After you heard the second act love duet between the two, the most passionate in all Italian opera, you would come to the same conclusion. Verdi’s powers are so great in this aria that the recitative that precedes it is better than just about any baritone aria not written by Verdi. ‘Eri tu’ requires everything from the singer that offers it to the public. Range, smooth vocal line, and effortless high notes are just the beginning of what’s needed to realize this great work. Below are 12 interpretations of the aria by 12 of the greatest baritones of the last 100 years. The Italian lyrics and an English translation are at the bottom of this piece.
The first up is Titta Ruffo (1877-1953), one of conductor Tullio Serafin’s three vocal miracles. The other two were Enrico Caruso and Rosa Ponselle. Ruffo possessed an amazing voice. His famous contemporary, baritone Giuseppe De Luca, said of him “His was not a voice, it was a miracle which he bawled away.” Ruffo himself admitted that he never really knew how to sing, which was why he refused to teach after his singing career was over. His best years we up until about age 40 which roughly coincided with Caruso’s career at the Met. Ruffo was not engaged at the New York house until after Caruso’s death when unfortunately he was past his prime. The reason for the delay in hiring Ruffo was that the house couldn’t simultaneously afford both singers. This recording made in 1915 shows the baritone’s strengths and weaknesses. His sound is magnificent at full volume, but a little unsteady in the softer passages. Because of the limits of contemporary recording technology the recitative is omitted. Apparently, unsure of his low notes he avoids the low note at the repeat of ‘per me’ in the 4th line of the aria going up instead of down. Eri tu Ruffo
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960) was the first in an impressive line of American baritones to achieve great renown. A hard drinker and equally hard liver his best years were in the thirties. Though he continued to sing at the Met until 1950 he was gradually eclipsed by Leonard Warren in the forties. His recording of the aria also omits the recitative. It’s a very impressive effort. Eri tu Tibbett
Leonard Warren (1911-60) was the greatest baritone that I ever heard in performance. He could do everything required of an Italian baritone and do it seemingly without effort. His top notes were astounding. In the house he went as high as B flat below high C. Most of his career was at the Met where he appeared more than 600 times before dying onstage while appearing as Don Carlo in La Forza Del Destino. Recordings can’t give an accurate impression of the full size of his voice which despite the ease of its production had the power of an organ. Eri tu Warren
Titto Gobbi (1913-84) was unquestionably the best singing actor of the dozen baritones presented here. Though his high notes had a hollow or airy quality about them, his sound was distinctive. You could recognize his voice after just a few notes. All his interpretations were full of insight and nuance. Eri tu Gobbi
Robert Merrill (1917-2004) had one of the most glorious baritone voices ever heard. Its only defect was a struggle with high notes. This problem is not apparent in the following recording from a 1959 Met performance. Eri tu Merrill
Ettore Bastianini (1922-67) died prematurely at age 44 from throat cancer. A cruel death for anyone, but especially for a singer. He had a very dark voice that was strongest in it mid-range. Onstage his high notes were sometimes forced. On this recording he sounds great. Eri tu Bastianini
Cornell MacNeil (1922-20110 had a voice that while at its peak was a force of nature. He had a volcanic sound that produced cannon like high notes. Though his career was a long one, its first half was far superior to its second when a large wobble infected his sound. He gave 641 performances at the Met 104 of them as Rigoletto. Eri tu MacNeil
Piero Cappuccilli (1926-2005) made the bulk of his career in Europe. I heard him in Chicago where he was good, but not better than that. Remarkably, he gave only a solitary performance at the Met – Germont in La Traviata. Eri tu Cappuccilli
Sherrill Milnes (b 1935) gave 653 performances at the Met. While problems with pitch marred the last part of his career, at his peak he was a great baritone with a virile and dark sound ideally suited for Verdi. Eri tu Milnes
Renato Bruson (b 1936) was one of the leading Verdi baritones of the last quarter of the 20th century. Despite his fame and success in most of the world’s major opera houses, he only appeared 19 times at the Met. He had a ‘rough’ sound that nevertheless did not seem strained. He was a major artist whose rendition of the aria is first rate. Eri tu Bruson
Leo Nucci (b 1942) is another major Verdi baritone who at age 73 is still appearing in the big Verdi roles at houses as important as La Scala. Though this recording is about 35 years old, Nucci is still singing the role today – a gerontological wonder. Eri tu Nucci
Finally, here’s a baritone who is neither Italian nor American. Dmitri Hvorostovsky (b 1962) is probably the best Verdi baritone now active. He first received international acclaim when he won the 1989 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition beating Bryn Terfel. This recording was made during the competition when the baritone was 27 years old. His voice and interpretation are fully formed. It’s obvious that he was ready to conquer the operatic world. Eri tu Hvorostovsky
While I could have chosen many more fine readings of ‘Eri tu’, these 12 are enough to show what a great baritone can do with Verdi’s extraordinary aria.
Alzati! là tuo figlio
A te concedo riveder. Nell’ombra
E nel silenzio, là,
Il tuo rossore e l’onta mia nascondi.
Non è su lei, nel suo
Fragile petto che colpir degg’io.
Altro, ben altro sangue a terger dèssi
L’offesa! . . .
Il sangue tuo!
E lo trarrà il pugnale
Dallo sleal tuo core,
Delle lagrime mie vendicator!
Eri tu che macchiavi quell’anima,
La delizia dell’anima mia;
Che m’affidi e d’un tratto esecrabile
L’universo avveleni per me!
Traditor! che compensi in tal guisa
Dell’amico tuo primo la fé!
O dolcezze perdute! O memorie
D’un amplesso che l’essere india! . . .
Quando Amelia sì bella, sì candida
Sul mio seno brillava d’amor!
È finita, non siede che l’odio
E la morte nel vedovo cor!
O dolcezze perdute, o speranze d’amor!
Arise; there is your son,
I permit you to see him. In the darkness
and the silence, there,
hide your blushes and my shame.
It isn’t her, no, not her
Fragile breast that I must strike.
Another, fine, another’s blood must wipe away
The offense! . . .
And I will draw the dagger
From your treacherous heart,
The avenger of my tears!
It was you who tainted that soul,
The delight of my soul;
Who confided in me and in one condemnable instant
Poisoned the universe for me!
Traitor! In such a manner you repay
The faith of your former friend!
O lost delights! O memories
Of an embrace that rendered happiness! . . .
When Amelia so beautiful, so pure
On my breast shone with love!
It is finished, nothing remains but hatred
And death in my widower’s heart!
O lost delights, O hopes of love!
I heard Milnes in recital about ’74. I was mermerized with not only the beauty and phrasing of the voice. But the instant connection he gave me to the character. I cried when he sang “Per me guinto” even tho I didn’t know Don Carlo then. He MADE me know.
His encore was Shenandoah. He made what I thought an ordinary song he turned into an experience of heavenly passion, yet PPP. Not operatic at all.
Great to hear from someone who heard Sherrill Milnes live! I have a distinct preference for American/British baritones, and he’s my favorite. His “Per me giunto” and Simon Keenlyside’s are the two that make me cry.
[…] that Hvorostovsky “is probably the best Verdi baritone now active.” Kurtzman provides some fascinating background on Era Tu from the third act of Verdi’s A Masked […]
While I agree very much with most of your assessments, I just cannot get over Hvorostovsky and all the barking and pushing. He always has sounded to me like a Pearl Fishers duet or a Bach soloist–rather like Barry Macdaniel. It is indeed tragic to have lost him so young, though. We need more cheerful baritones.