When I published my choices for the 10 best tenors of the 20th century I admitted that my picks were entirely subjective. Many readers had different thoughts as to who should be on such a list. I fully realized that if I made up the list on another day that it would be different. So, here’s another list of the best tenors of the 20th century. This compendium is not intended to be the next 10 tenors after the first list, but just another shot at the best tenors of the last century. Of course, it’s just as subjective as its predecessor. Once again, the singers are listed in chronological order. No attempt has been made to rank them. I’ve also limited my selections to singers who made their careers in the West.
Leo Slezak (1873-1946) sang at almost all the world’s great opera house. He could sing everything from Mozart to Verdi’s Otello. In fernem land from Lohengrin shows Slezak rich tone to great effect. Schumann’s Slezak Der Nussbaum reveals his great facility with head tone and his idiomatic way with lieder.
Aureliano Pertile (1885-1952) was a full voiced spinto known for the sensitivity of his interpretations and realization of the emotional content of the music he sang. His sound was large, but somewhat harsh. His collaboration with Toscanini at La Scala is still legendary. His recording of the Improvviso from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier is considered by many listeners to be the standard for this aria.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (1892-1979) had a hugely successful career at all the world’s major opera houses. He sang 307 performances at the Met between 1923 and 1933. He left the New York company during the Great Depression when he refused to take a cut in his fees. Beniamino Gigli left at about the same time for the same reason. Lauri-Volpi had a similar style of vocal production as did his compatriot Giovanni Martinelli. They both tended to be almost on pitch and to have very white high notes. It was a style that I don’t care for. But Lauri-Volpi is on the list because mine is a minority opinion. I picked a recording which I think shows him at his best, Ch’ella mi creda from La Fanciulla Del West.
Miguel Fleta (1897-1938) was a Spanish tenor whose vocal brilliance was inversely proportional to his career’s duration. He made brilliant debuts at both La Scala and the Met while just in his mid twenties. He was the first Calaf in the world premiere of Turandot. He was renowned for his brilliant pianissimo singing. His timbre was dark and he could sing both bel canto and spinto roles. He left the Met after only 38 performances over two seasons because of a disagreement with management. I don’t know what it was about. His voice was virtually gone by age 30 and he died in financial distress at 40. But while it lasted, his voice was a unique instrument. Una vergine, un angel di Dio and Spirto gentile both from Donizetti’s La Favorita and E lucevan le stelle from Tosca show Fleta’s ability to sing the softest note with full vocal support. Ignore the hysterics at the end of the Puccini aria.
Helge Rosvaenge (1897-1972) was a Danish tenor who made most of his career in Germany and Austria. He had a bright spinto tenor that was ideal for Wagner and flexible for Mozart. The only Wagner role he sang onstage was Parsifal. Virtually all his roles were sung in German. Nessun dorma is the only Italian recording that I can find by the Danish tenor. Celeste Aida (in German) was recorded in performance in 1938. Both arias show the brilliant tone of the mighty tenor.
Max Lorenz (1901-75) was one of the great heldentenors of the first half of the 20th century. In addition to all the great Wagner parts Lorenz also sang the big Verdi roles. He clearly was one of the major operatic figures of his time Rienz’s Prayer and ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ from Die Walküre are good representations of his vocal powers.
Jon Vickers (1926-2015) was a Canadian dramatic tenor. He was renowned for both his Verdi and Wagner interpretations. I heard him many times both in New York and Chicago. He had a dark and large voice which he used with great interpretative skill. His top was a little thin and he sometimes verged on crooning. Perhaps his greatest role was the title part of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. I heard him sing the role twice. His portrayal was an overwhelming depiction of personal disintegration to madness. Britten reportedly did not care for his performance of the role, preferring a more restrained rendition. I can’t imagine anyone bettering Vickers in this part. Mad Scene Act 3. Vickers also sang lieder. I heard his first performance of Schubert’s Die Winterreise at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall; it was brilliantly done. Vickers was noted for his Otello which he sang frequently and which he recorded twice. Ora per sempre addio is from the second act.
Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017) was a Swedish tenor with a silvery lyric voice. He was seemingly fluent in every known human language. He probably could have sung in Esperanto if there were anything in that language to sing. He sang everywhere and made more recordings than I can count. Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin and Je crois entendre encore from The Pearl Fishers show why the tenor was in such great demand by all the world’s opera companies.
The Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus (1927-99) was born in the Canary Islands. He was known for his impeccable technique and brilliant high notes. He limited his repertoire to roles that fit his lyric tenor and was able to sing with effectiveness up until his final illness. Ah mes amis! from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment was recorded when Kraus was 59. I heard him do the opera in Chicago in the 70s and he tossed the high Cs around like confetti. The Lamento di Federico from Cilea’s L’Arlesiana was recorded when the tenor was 62. For decades Kraus’s portrayal of Werther was definitive. Pourquoi me réveiller is from the last act.
Fritz Wunderlich (1930-66) is one of opera’s saddest stories. He had one of the most beautiful lyric tenors ever recorded and a brilliant vocal technique to match. He died from falling down a flight of stairs just weeks before his Met debut and his 36th birthday. Das Lied vom Leben des Schrenk is from Die große Sünderin an operetta by Eduard Künneke and Komm o holde Dame from Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche show what opera lost by the untimely demise of this great tenor.
OK – 10 great tenors. Of course I’ve left some really good ones out. I was chided by one reader for ignoring Giovanni Martinelli on the first list and he’s not on this one as well. The tenor sang more than 900 performances at the Met where he was a great favorite for 30 years. Interestingly, he rarely appeared in his native Italy. He’s not on my list because of his unsuccessful romance with the proper pitch. If your sense of pitch is acute listening to him sing can induce mal de mer. Contrary opinions are welcome.