My piece on the 10 best tenors of the 20th century proved popular, so here’s a go at the 10 best baritones of the same epoch. Again, I emphasize that what follows is merely a personal opinion. I make no claim to omniscience. Readers are encouraged to make their own list. Actually, there are 11 baritones below. I was never good at arithmetic. There was only one American singer on my tenor list – Richard Tucker. Five of my baritones are American. I can’t explain why the US produces so many great baritones, but it’s a pleasing phenomenon. The singers are presented in the order of their birth.
Mattia Battistini (1856-1928) was known as the King of the Baritones. His career lasted almost 50 years. His style of graceful yet dramatic singing was more typical of the 19th century than of the 20th. He had a silken line with a smooth register from bottom to the top of his range. His impeccable technique allowed him to sing at the highest level from his debut as a leading baritone at age 22 almost until his death. Below are two examples of his art. O sommo carlo is from the 3rd act of verdi’s Ernani. Jules Massenet was so impressed by Battistini’s singing that he adapted the title role of Werther for the baritone voice. Pourquoi me reveiller (sung in Italian) is a little different from the tenor version, but is still easily recognizable. Recently, Thomas Hampson has been singing the baritone version of this opera.
Mario Ancona (1860-1931) was born to a middle class Jewish family in Livorno. He had a major international career, singing 197 performances at the Met – all between 1893 and 1897. From 1906-08 he again sang in New York, this time with Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company. He, like Battistini, was a bel canto baritone. But he did sing all the big Verdi roles and the verisomo operas that were contemporaneous to his career. A tanto amor from Donizetti’s La Favorita shows the elegance of his vocal line and the beauty of his tone. Ah per sempre io ti perdi from Bellini’s I Puritani is another example of his propensity for bel canto. Di provenza il mar is sung with the same attention to line and style as are the bel canto arias. Unfortunately, Anona only made about 20 recordings, many of which have poor sound. Nevertheless, on the basis of what we have, a great artist.
Tita Ruffo (1877-1953) was to baritones what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He forever changed the way baritones sing. Endless power and trumpet-like high notes were the marks of his style. He was a force of nature, a miracle to all who heard him during his prime. His voice was gone by the time he was 50 and he spent the last third of his life in relative poverty. He had elected to take payment for his recordings up front rather than as a percentage of sales as did Caruso. Caruso’s estate earned more in record royalties than had the great tenor during his lifetime because of this decision. Ruffo also refused to teach saying that as had never really known how to sing it was unfair for him to teach what he did not know. Of course, he knew how to sing – he just was a natural who did not have to analyze what he did. The following three recordings give an idea of the power, darkness, and virility of his singing. Credo in un dio crudel from Verdi’s Otello, Zaza piccola zingara, from Leoncavallo’s Zaza, and Largo al factotum from Rossini’s Barber.
Lawrence Tibbett (1896-1960), born in Bakersfield, California, was the first great American operatic baritone. He joined the Met in 1923 appearing in secondary roles. But on January 2, 1925 singing Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff he created a sensation after his 2nd act monologue E sogno in which Ford thinks his wife has been unfaithful. Verdi put so much intensity into the piece that the listener for a few minutes thinks he’s back in Otello. Tibbett’s performance literally stopped the show. He had to take a solo bow before it could continue. He became the Met’s leading baritone for the next 15 years. A position he held until the advent of Leonard Warren. Eri tu was made in a studio. Tibbett was also a movie and radio star. High living and alcohol prematurely ended his career.
Leonard Warren (1911-60), born Leonard Warenoff in the Bronx, was the greatest baritone I ever heard in performance. He had everything – power, legato, effortless high notes. He could vocalize to a tenor’s high C. He made the bulk of his career at the Met, much to betterment of New York audiences and the loss to the rest of the opera world. Il balen from Trovatore and Nemico della patria from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier give proof to my assertion.
Also born in 1911 was the Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004). His career was almost entirely made in the Soviet Union. As far as I can tell, he sang everything in Russian. He made a solitary appearance at the Met as Amonasro in Aida, the day before Leonard Warren died onstage. He sang in Russian while everyone else used Italian. His recordings are all in Russian, irrespective of the original language. Verdi sounds quite different in Russian as does Lisitsian’s voice when he sings an Italian aria in Russian compared to the way it sounds in Russian opera. Accordingly, I’ve picked an aria written in Russian which show this great baritone’s voice to its best advantage. The Song of the Venetian Guest is from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko.
Tito Gobbi (1913-84) was most noted as a singing actor. His voice was not the extraordinary instrument that some of the other singers in this compendium had, but his interpretations were insightful and revealed nuances in the music he performed that were not realized by other singers. I was at his Met debut in 1956 as Scarpia in Tosca. His interpretation of the Bad Baron was beyond compare. His colleagues in that performance, among the most memorable I’ve ever attended, were Zinka Milanov, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Fernando Corena. The following two selections show Gobbi’s dramatic skill to great advantage – Pari siamo from Rigoletto and The Honor Monologue from Falstaff.
Robert Merrill (1917-2004), born in Brooklyn as Moishe Miller, had perhaps the most distinctive baritone voice since the start of the recording age. After just a few notes you can recognize his glorious sound. His career at the Met lasted 31 years. He gave the company 789 performances. After his Met days were over he became very well known for his singing of the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium where he wore a Yankee uniform with ‘1 1⁄2’ on its back. Though best known for his singing in Italian opera, he was also adept at its French incarnation. Avant de quiter from Gounod’s Faust and Vision fugitive from Massenet’s Herodiade show him at his best.
Cornell Macneil (1922-2011) was born in Minneapolis. Though he sang the works of many composers, he was best known as a Verdi baritone. During his peak years, the 1960s, his volcanic emissions would drive audiences wild. He sang 642 performances at the Met, 104 of them as Rigoletto – the role of his Met debut. Oh, de’ verd’anni miei from Ernani and Eri tu from Un Ballo in Maschera demonstrate why he was in such demand for the great Verdi baritone roles. The hard use of his voice resulted in a noticeable wobble that characterized the second half of his career.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012) was best known for his singing of Lieder, but also appeared extensively in the opera house. He almost certainly is the most recorded singer since the invention of the gramophone. I would not be surprised to find his recording of several telephone directories. He was celebrated for the insight which he brought to everything he sang. To show his extraordinary versatility, I’ll start with Der Erlkönig , Franz Schubert’s colossal song written when the composer was only 18. Fischer-Dieskau recorded all 600+ of the composer’s songs. Next is Wagner’s O du mein holder from Tannhäuser. Last is In braccio alle dovizie from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, an opera that is performed far less than its merits deserve. It is sung in German.
Last up is the only baritone on this list who is still alive. Sherrill Milnes (b 1935) is from Downers Grove, Illinois. He made his Met debut in 1965 in the same performance of Faust that first presented Montserrat Caballé to Met audiences. Over the next several years he sang with increasing success. But what marked his arrival as a Verdi baritone of the highest distinction was the new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1968 that also featured Montserrat Caballé and Richard Tucker. Sacra la scelta e dun consorte (I’ve included the cabaletta) from the 1968 production, shows why Milnes was the leading Verdi baritone over the ensuing 20 years. In his more than 30 year career at the Met, Milnes sang 653 times with the company. Unfortunately his last years on stage were troubled by pitch problems.
Well, these are my “10” picks for the last century’s best baritones. Again, they are just the product of opinion. If you differ, post your choices in the comments section.
Added Jan 15, 20018 I unaccountably left Riccardo Stracciari off this list. I wrote an entire article about which you can read here.
I only saw Milnes live. He and Tibbett for me are unmatched in characterization. Who but Tibbett could do this? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLIghvvzerM
I find DFD beyond dull. All the impulsion of a snail. I can’t take Gobbi’s weird sound. I am familiar with all on your list except Ancona. Wish I could have heard Merrill live.
I read that Milnes later vocal problems were from the then new laser treatment for vocal nodes.
As a bass-baritone I don’t know if Ezio Flagello qualifies here.
I saw him with Corelli and Bumbry in the Verdi Requiem. I have rarely heard such beauty in a low voice before or since. The perfect match for Corelli.
All the baritones you discuss are very good, of course. But should they all be on the top ten, and were there not others who equally or better deserve the honor? I strongly agree with your picks of Battistini and Ruffo. Both of these artists were extraordinary singers and had magnificent voices. They were also excellent interpreters. From there, it becomes more difficult for me, mainly due to an embarrassment of riches among gifted Italian baritones. In addition to Mario Ancona, I think of Riccardo Stracciari, Pasquale Amato, and Giuseppe de Luca. How can any of these not be on a top-ten list? Also, there is the wonderful French baritone, Maurice Renaud, as fine a stylist as any, and having a most artistic style and interpretive ability. Then there are baritones who, while certainly admirable, perhaps do not really belong on the list. Cornell MacNeil, for example, while a personal favorite, is one such. Sherill Milnes is another. Robert Merrill, on the other hand, who is not really a great interpreter, in contrast to Battistini, Tibbett, and Gobbi, has such a majestic voice and wonderful technique, that he makes my list. On the other hand, Tito Gobbi deserves mention due mainly to his interpretive skill more than the sheer quality of his voice. (Similarly, in the case of de Luca.) Finally, if Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is on the list since he is probably the greatest male lieder singer on record, then Gerary Souzay might also be included as the runner-up, as well as being a complete master of the French art song.
GREAT CHOICES ALSO ETTORE BASTIANINI IN FORZA DEL DESTINO AND OTHER VERDI OPERAS . AMERICANS SEEM TO SPECIALIZE IN THE BARITONE VOICE-NELSON EDDY GORDON MACRAE . I LIKE PIERO CAPUCILLI AND RENATO BRUSON ALTHOUGH THEIR VOICES ARE NOT AS SPLENDID.
I did see ETTORE BASTIANINI in Chenier with Corelli and Tebaldi. Got their autographs. He was past prime and seemed in some distress and Corelli was consoling him.
Eddy sang in 30 operas. I have all his old radio shows and he was quite amazing. Not to be in the same sentence with MacRae
Bastianini certainly belongs on the list, his life cut short by cancer in his forties. The reference to “past prime” may be an indication of the throat cancer that killed him which he did not reveal to his colleagues. A tragedy but stunning recordings remain.
Why is Etttore Bastianini not on your list? Was he not after Warren the finest baritone ever?
I heard Bastianini in Chenier in ’63. He may have been into his health problems as he wasn’t impressive. Any recordings with him at his zenith??
You have indeed assembled many outstanding singers. I must confess that Pavel Lisitsian is unknown to me.
I’m sure everyone who comments asks why you left out their favourite: I’m no different: the omission of Giuseppe de Luca seems incredible. I realize his inclusion would exclude someone else. There are one or two who I would exclude to include the ultimate example of bel canto of the twentieth century.
I believe that Dmitri Hvorostovsky definitely belong to this elite company.
Very hard to chose 10, but as many others here, I’m missing Bastianini. He’s top 5 for me. Also missing Stracciari and Carlo Galeffi
We would like to suggest the great Italian baritone Mario Sereni. Blessed with a virile and burnished sound , beautiful, rich tone quality, he is a favorite…especially in the recording of ANDREA CHENIER with Corelli.
His “Nemico della patria” is thrilling!
We also had the great pleasure to sing with
him in 5 performances of L’ELISIR D’AMORE
with the Miami Opera starring Luciano Pavarotti, Judith Blegen , Spiro Malas ,
Mario Sereni as Belcore , Cheryl Cavendish as Giannetta and conductor
Thanks for you comment. You can read my thoughts about Mario Sereni here: https://medicine-opera.com/2019/05/the-mets-house-baritones/
My choice would be Dmitri Hvorostovsky from Russia. He is breathtaking
and has the most humble smile. I would rather hear him than anyone.
Leonard Warren had everything EXCEPT low notes
What about Freddie Mercury? He is undoubtedly one of the greatest baritones.
Of those listed I heard and saw on stage only Pavel Lisitsian. I was his great fan. His voice was very specific: extremely smooth and giving a feeling of chocolate taste. But it was a little guttural, and it gave a hint of pepper to his chocolate. (He was Armenian, hence may be such Oriental timbre). His voice was strong but not thunderous. In the top range, however, his timbre changed, so his voice lost the specific tint. His top roles were Onegin, Germont, Valentin, Venetian Guest, & Escamillo. I saw him in Aida too. Lisitsian was also a great actor. He always looked aristocratic. As Onegin, he almost whispered “I will kill you!”, but the whole audience shuttered.
And yes, why Bastianini is not on the list?!
For me the warmest voice was that of Nicolae Herlea. His Rigoletto is unique. I would somehow add him to your great list!
Why was Hermann Prey left off? I understand there are many great baritones, but he was certainly one of the greats of the 20th century and was a great leader of Lieder, beginning the Schubert festival alternating between New York and Vienna. Also sang at the Met many times, including in signature roles of both Figeros. I am unclear as to this omission.
I arbitrarily stopped at 10 baritones. He, was you say, a fine baritone. I heard him in performance several times and he was always first rate.