The basses discussed below are those who I think were among the best of the past century. If I made a similar list on another day it would likely be different from this one. Thus, this compilation reflects nothing more than personal taste and preference. If you have a different one post it in the comments section below. The singers are presented in the order of their birth.
Feodor Chaliapin (1873-1938) was a unique performer. He mastered all the components required of a great singing actor. When he was onstage everyone else seemed to fade to near invisibility. His career at the Met was strange. He first appeared there in the season 0f 1907-08. He gave 23 performances and then vanished until 1921, several months after the death of Enrico Caruso, when he reappeared in the title role of Boris Godunov. He sang in Russian, everyone else in Italian.
His most famous part was the title role of Boris Godunov. He was also renowned for his interpretations of Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov, Mephisto in Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mefistofele, Don Quixote in Massenet’s Don Quichotte, King Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlos and Bertram in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable. Nonnes qui reposez (sung in Italian as Le rovine son queste ) is from Act 3 of this last opera.
Nazzareno De Angelis (1881-1962) was an Italian bass especially known for his Rossini, Verdi, and Wagner roles and for his portrayal of Boito’s Mefistofele which was the part he sang most often. He frequently appeared at La Scala under Toscanini’s direction. His appearances in the Americas were limited to Chicago and Buenos Aires. Here is a compelling reading of Wotan’s Farewell from the end of Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walküre. It’s sung in Italian.
Ezio Pinza (1892-1957) was the Met’s leading bass for more than 20 years. He sang 879 times with the company. He was such a charismatic performer that he reinvented himself as a Broadway leading man in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific after his Met career was finished. He had 95 roles in his repertoire. O tu Palermo is from Act 2 of I Vespri Siciliani; it is not among the operas he sang at the Met.
Tancredi Pasero (1893-1983), along with Pinza, was the leading Italian bass of his time. Despite Pinza dominance at the Met, Pasero sang 117 performances with the company including two of Don Giovanni in which he was Leporello to Pinza’s Don. One of these, in 1932, was broadcast, but as far as I know no recording of it exists. Pasero’s recording the Catalog aria from that opera shows what a great combination the two basses must have made. Note how similar is the sound of these two singers.
Alexander Kipnis (1891-1978) was born in Ukraine. He initially sang in synagogues. He studied at the Warsaw Conservatory and then in Berlin. He was interned as a foreign national during World War I, but his singing skill got him released and he made his operatic debut with the Hamburg Opera in 1915. He rapidly became one of the world’s leading basses, but despite becoming an American citizen in 1931 he did not appear at the Met until 1940. In addition to having an operatic repertoire of more than 100 roles, he was also renowned as a lieder singer. Il lacerato spirito is from the Prologue to Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.
Boris Christoff (1914-93) was a Bulgarian bass whose dramatic intensity came closest to that of Chaliapin. He was particularly noted for his Russian and Verdi roles. I’ve devoted an earlier post to him. His interpretation of King Philip’s aria from Don Carlo is about as good as it gets. Ella gemmai m’amo
Cesare Siepi (1923-2010) had everything a bass could want – good looks, great stage presence, a fine lyric voice, and good luck. He made his Met debut in 1950 as King Philip in Don Carlo – Rudolph Bing’s first opening night. He got the job when Christoff was denied a visa to enter the US. Piff, paff is sung by Raoul’s Protestant servant Marcel in the first act of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Siepi’s interpretation is rousing and richly delivered.
Norman Treigle (1927-75) was a performer who had to be seen onstage to realize what a great performer he was. He was born and died in New Orleans; his death was attributed to barbiturate overdose. His life was troubled, but he channeled his inner demons into impersonations of the greatest power. He made his career at the New York City Opera. The Met in another of its strange hiring practices never engaged him. One of his specialties was all four villains from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. Scintille diamant is from the 2nd or 3rd act, depending on the production. Alas, his recorded legacy is scant.
Nicolai Ghiaurov 1929-2004) was another great Bulgarian bass. He sang all the great Italian and Russian roles. Don Basilio in Rossini’s Barber is standard lark for big voiced basses. La Calunnia is what gets them to do the show.
Finally, the only one of these singers who is still alive. Sam Ramey was born in Kansas in 1942. He sang in most of the world’s great houses before making a belated debut at the Met in 1984. Ramey had a voice that could do just about anything. Florid coloratura singing from a bass! He could be intensely dramatic as in Mefistofele or Boris. The Met is bringing back Rossini’s Semiramide next month. Ildar Abdrazakov is tasked with the role of Assur. Ramey sang the role with astounding brilliance the last time the company did the opera. Deh ti ferma…Que numi furenti is from the last act. It requires almost god-like virtuosity for its full realization. This performance is from the Met’s 1990 run. This is the standard against all future basses will be judged.
OK, that’s 10. But as a bonus I include one basso buffo, the best I ever heard – Fernando Corena (1916-84). When he was onstage, he pocketed every scene. I heard him in most of his great roles as well as small ones like Fra Melitone and the Sacristin. I saw him in the title role of Falstaff under Bernstein – that was too much of a stretch for him, though he did do it 10 times with the company. Altogether, he appeared more that 700 times at the Met. His greatest role was likely Dr Bartolo in the Barber. A un dottor della mia sorte is from the 1st act.