Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004) was a Russian baritone of Armenian heritage. He started work as a laborer. When his vocal talent was recognized he trained at the Leningrad Conservatory. His vocal career started in that city at the Maly Leningrad State Opera. From 1940 until his retirement from the opera stage in 1966 he was a principal baritone at the Bolshoi theater in Moscow. He gave an astounding 1800 performances with that company. He continued as a recital artist for years after he left the opera house. He was both an inspiration and friend to Dmitri Hvorostovsky who enjoyed the fame in the West that would have been Lisitsian’s had he lived in a different era.
As the Soviet Union lessened travel restrictions he appeared in many European venues, in Japan, and in the United States. As part of an American tour he gave a single performance at the Met as Amonasro in Aida in 1960 – the day before Leonard Warren died onstage at that theater. He sang in Russian while everyone else sang the Italian text.
Lisitsian’s voice is described by those who heard him in performance as lyrical and not extraordinarily large. On records he sound like a dark voiced baritone with an even tone that proceeds effortlessly up to a high A without any break in registar. Most of his performances both on stage and in the recording studio are in Russian. The overall impression of a listener who never heard him live is that of a wonderfully gifted baritone whose voice and interpretation are equally brilliant.
The Song of the Venetian Guest from Scene 4 of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko is perhaps the best known number from the opera. As the part is a minor one, it’s very unlikely that a singer of the quality of Lisitsian would sing the song onstage. Prince Yeletsky’s Aria is the best known piece from Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades; it’s from the second act. Lisitsian’s singing is a primer of lyricism. The same beauty of line is evident is his singing of Onegin’s Aria from the first act of Tchaikovsky’s opera.
Lisitsian also sang French opera, in Russian of course. He was the Toreador during Mario Del Monaco’s guest appearance in Carmen at the Bolshoi in 1959. The role was too low for his lyric baritone. He was more comfortable as Valentin in Gounod’s Faust. Avant de quitter ces lieux is in the center of Lisitsian’s sweet spot.
His high lyric baritone was ideal for Verdi, and he sang a lot of the great Italian’s major roles. O sommo Carlo from Ernani is one of Lisitsian’s rare recordings in Italian. This piano accompanied excerpt, obviously from a recital, shows his brilliant upper voice. Il balen from Il Trovatore is arguably the most beautiful aria ever written for a baritone. Eri tu from Un Ballo in Maschera get a compelling reading starting with the dramatic recitative followed by the wistful second half of the aria. The last Verdi excerpt is the duet from the Nile Scene of Aida. Lisitsian is joined by Galina Vishnevskaya who at the time of this recording was in full vocal bloom.
Mario Del Monaco’s expedition of Moscow mentioned above also included a performance of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Unfortunately, Lisitsian did not sing Tonio. Too bad for the Muscovites of the dreary 50s. He give a stupendous account of the opera’s Prologue.
Finally, Lisitsian’s was a sensitive performer of lieder as well as opera. Here is Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh accompanied by an orchestra rather than a piano and sung in Russian instead of German.
Had the world been less violent and repressive during the middle of the last century. Lisitsian would have been as famous in the West as was his successor the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He was born the same year as Leonard Warren and Jussi Björling, unfortunately in a less felicitous part of the world. But the Soviet singer’s numerous recordings document what we missed.