With a range neither stratospheric nor cavernous, the baritone possesses the most ‘natural’ of the male voice types. He’s a real guy who can communicate with unrivaled immediacy, as these ten greats of the voice type demonstrate.
José Van Dam (b.1940)
Wholly deserving of his place on the list of famous Belgians (and crediting his bilingual country for his eloquence in both Latin and Germanic languages), bass-baritone José Van Dam combined consistent beauty and generosity of tone with interpretation of deep perception and humanity.
Although he commanded power for the roles of Wagner’s Dutchman (The Flying Dutchman) and Strauss’s Jochanaan (Salome), he retained the intimacy for songs by Schubert and Ravel and the elegance for Mozart, while also convincing completely as Wozzeck, the poor, victimised soldier of Alban Berg’s titular debut. When it came to Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, he was without rival as Prince Golaud, a complex figure of true tragic stature.
Gerald Finley (b.1960)
As The New York Times said, Gerald Finley ‘has long been recognised as a recitalist of rare versatility, a concert artist of the first rank, and an opera singer of distinction in a broad repertory’. Finley trained in his native Canada as well as in the UK, developing a mellow-toned voice that he deploys with exceptional sensitivity and imagination.
In the realm of opera, the Mozart baritone roles prepared him for Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Wagner, as well as an array of contemporary works such as John Adams’s Doctor Atomic. As an avid explorer of the song repertoire, Finley has received numerous prizes for his recorded recitals, in partnership with pianist Julius Drake.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau casts a long shadow over any male ‘lieder’ (art song) singer – especially his baritone successors. He changed the course of song interpretation by taking an almost forensic approach to both text and music, weighting and colouring vowels, consonants and notes with extraordinary precision as he mined their expressive depths.
Perhaps paradoxically, one of his most admired operatic roles (in a repertoire that also embraced Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini) was the unsophisticated Mandryka in Strauss’s Arabella. Fischer-Dieskau collaborated closely with contemporary composers, including Henze and Rihm, and was chosen by Benjamin Britten for the premiere of his War Requiem in 1962.
Christian Gerhaher (b.1969)
While studying medicine, Christian Gerhaher also found time to take masterclasses with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, so it is hardly surprising that he is a baritone who approaches lieder singing with tremendous seriousness of purpose.
Described in Gramophone as ‘a singer who for vocal beauty, poetic insight and expressive immediacy is surely unsurpassed in lieder today’, when it comes to opera, Gerhaher chooses his roles with the greatest of care. He finds Debussy’s Pelléas (Pelléas et Mélisande) especially fascinating, has ventured into Verdi with Posa in Don Carlo, and in 2011 received an Olivier Award for his role as Wolfram in the Royal Opera House’s production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Tito Gobbi (1913-84)
While Tito Gobbi did not command the resplendent tone of such Italian baritone contemporaries as Ettore Bastianini and Giuseppe Taddei, he is celebrated as the epitome of the singing actor. By transforming both his physical appearance and vocal colours, he brought each character to life, and is famous above all for the incendiary chemistry he generated with Maria Callas, both on stage and in the recording studio, as Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca.
As the title characters in Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, he proved that he was also a master of comedy, while his interpretation of Simon Boccanegra in Verdi’s eponymous work made clear why baritones consider it the ultimate Italian role for their voice type.
Pavel Lisitsian (1911-2004)
Although Opera magazine has asserted that he ‘possessed arguably the most beautiful baritone voice of the postwar period’, Pavel Lisitsian is the least well-known of the baritones in this top ten – no doubt because he spent 35 years at the Bolshoi Theatre during the Soviet era. He did, however, appear at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala and toured internationally as a recitalist.
Of Armenian descent, Lisitsian was a factory worker before training as a singer. With his luminous tone, flickering vibrato, and eloquent diction and phrasing, he excelled in Russian roles – such as the title character of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Prince Yeletsky in Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, and Napoleon in Prokofiev’s War and Peace – and in Verdi.
Sherrill Milnes (b.1935)
The inclusion of Sherrill Milnes in the top ten also acknowledges the great American baritones who preceded him: Lawrence Tibbett, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill and Cornell MacNeil. Like Milnes, all of them excelled in Verdi due to their big, charismatic voices and ringing high notes.
Illinois farm boy Milnes learned his craft with a touring company – bussing 100,000 miles around the USA – before establishing himself as a star at the Metropolitan Opera in the late 1960s. Often partnering with Plácido Domingo, he is one of the most recorded singers of all time, admired as much for his acute musical and dramatic detailing as for his vocal splendour.
Tita Ruffo (1877-1953)
Known as ‘La voce del leone’ (The lion’s voice), Tita Ruffo is often seen as the Caruso of baritones. Like his tenor contemporary, he gloried in the amplitude and splendour of his dark-toned voice, and ushered in an era of singing that placed a new emphasis on sheer heroic power.
Writing in Gramophone in 1928, Walter Legge, later to become EMI’s greatest classical producer, praised ‘the overwhelming beauty’ of Ruffo’s voice, calling it ‘manly, broad, sympathetic, [and] of unsurpassed richness’, and found that his artistry ‘stamped him as genius’. Even today, Ruffo defines the essence of the Italian dramatic baritone.
Friedrich Schorr (1888-1953)
Although born in Hungary and admired for his many performances in Berlin and London, the bass-baritone Friedrich Schorr is most closely associated with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he sang for nearly 20 years. A luminary of the Met’s golden age of Wagner singing, Schorr appeared with such fellow legends as the sopranos Kirsten Flagstad, Lotte Lehmann and Elisabeth Rethberg, and the tenor Lauritz Melchior.
With a majestic stage presence to match his firm, resonant voice, he is recognised as one of the greatest interpreters of Wagner’s Wotan (Ring cycle) and Hans Sachs (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg). An interesting aside: Schorr appeared in the US premiere of Ernst Krenek’s jazz-age opera Jonny spielt auf.
Bryn Terfel (b.1965)
From Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Bryn Terfel imprints his strong personality on every role he sings through his vibrant, flexible bass-baritone and his exceptionally vivid use of language.
Since bursting onto the scene at the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World, Terfel has built a carefully chosen portfolio of operatic roles while also excelling in lieder, English and Welsh song, and popular repertoire. Next up for the Welshman: Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (coming in 2015) – but, as he has told interviewers, his dream would be to star in a new opera based on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Source: Sinfini Music