It was really hard to pick 10 mezzos. There were so many great singers of this range in the 20th century that I’m sure that if I picked just 10 a week from now, the list would be different. So this ranking not only reflects personal taste and opinion, but it also is conditional. Feel free to post your own list. The 10 mezzos below are presented in the order of their birth. I have made no distinction between mezzos and contraltos and I am a bit light on the great lyric mezzos.
Louise Homer (1871-1947) was one of the Metropolitan Opera’s biggest stars over the first two decades of the 20th century. She gave 734 performances with the company, all but 5 were between 1900 and 1919. She had a big and very beautiful voice. Che faro senza Euridice from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice shows her at her lush best.
Ebe Stignani (1904-74) was one of the greatest singers never to appear at the Met. She did sing in San Francisco as well as all the great houses in Europe and South America. She toured North America after World War II. But La Scala was the center of her career. A short and plump woman, she was blessed with a voice that could handle the heavy Verdi parts as well as the most florid bel canto roles. Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento from Rossini’s Semiramide shows her facility with the latter style. O Don fatale is the quintessential Verdi mezzo aria.
The Met almost missed out with another supreme mezzo, Giulietta Simionato (1910-2010). She did not appear with company until she was 49. She gave only 28 performances with Met. I only heard her one time in performance – a 1959 Cavalleria with Jussi Björling. She was dazzling. Voi lo sapete from that opera shows her voice to great effect.
Christa Ludwig (b 1928) was known for her work in lieder and oratorios in addition to opera. While especially noted for her performances in German music, she also included important parts in French and Italian as well. Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina is his best known work. It is still performed in Germany, but rarely in non-German speaking countries. Schonste, ungnad’ ge is from Act 1. The following video speaks for itself. It was recorded at the celebratory concert marking Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday. In case the video goes to YouTube purgatory. The audio is below the video.
Janet Baker (b 1933) was known as an opera and lieder singer as well for her concert work. it was this last capacity that I heard her in several appearances with the Chicago Symphony. Her singing of Thy Hand, Belinda … When I Am Laid In Earth from Act 3 of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas fully realizes one of the great English composer’s most beautiful melodies.
Marilyn Horne (b 1934) was one of the century’s greatest singers of any vocal type. Her facility with highly ornamented music was unequaled. Di tanti palpiti is from Act 1 of Rossini’s Tancredi. Premiered in 1813 before the composer was 21, the opera established Rossini as Italy’s leading composer. Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto…Non più mesta from Act 2 of Cenerentola is a brilliant display piece.
Fiorenza Cossotto (b 1935) sang in virtually every important opera house in the world. At the Met she gave 148 performances between 1968 and 1989. She was particularly good in the great dramatic Italian parts. O mio Fernando from Donizetti’s La Favorita
Elena Obraztsova (1939-2015) lived through the siege of Leningrad to become one of the Soviet Union’s biggest stars. She then went on to appear at most of the leading opera houses worldwide. In addition to the standard Western repertory, she also sang most of the Russian operas that are not commonly performed outside of Russia. Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix from Act 2 of Saint-Saens’ Samson and Dalila is sung by every mezzo.
Federica von Stade (b 1945) is a lyric mezzo who appeared 300 times at the Met. She had a wide repertoire and was particularly effective in French opera and in those of Mozart and Rossini. Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was one of her best roles. Voi che sapete is from Act 2.
Dolora Zajick (b 1952) was (and still is) the Verdi mezzo par excellance. She could belt it out like no other mezzo you’ve ever heard. The Judgement scene finale from a 1989 Met performance of Aida shows why she was such a force of nature. La luce langue from Act 2 of Verdi’s Verdi’s Macbeth was added to the 1865 revision of the opera. Lady Macbeth is sometimes sung by a mezzo.
Well, that’s it. As I said above, this list is subject to change. A technical note, starting with this post all audio files will be linked through Dropbox. Just click on the file and then start the Dropbox player that appears.