The 10 best tenors of the XX century

Los 10 mejores tenores del siglo XX: segunda parte
Luciano Pavarotti

It is by all means not an easy task to prepare a list of the best tenors of the XX century, especially if we bear in mind that the aforementioned has provided the world with some of the best singers in the history of opera.

There is also the additional difficulty that everybody has his or her own preference list. This notwithstanding, the 10 tenors in the following article have provided opera lovers with some of the most unforgettable opera moments ever. 

1.- Enrico Caruso (1873- 1921)

Enrico Caruso opens the list of the best tenors of the XX century based on his own merits. He was considered by Arturo Toscanini, who conducted him on various occasions, as the perfect tenor. He possessed an exceptional singing line in addition to spectacular sound power combined with the incredible ability to smoothen out sounds and breath control. He passed away at the age of 48, the height of his career, due to a pulmonary infection. His successes in London and New York remain memorable and he rapidly conquered the support of the audience. He was also a pioneer in the world of recording which played a significant role in increasing his popularity. Only the aria from Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s opera I Pagliacci “Vesti la giubba” sold 1 million copies, the first time such an event took place in gramophone history. He performed in many opera debuts such as Adriana Lecouvreur, La Fanciulla del West and La Arlesiana.

2.- Aureliano Pertile (1885- 1952)

Aureliano Pertile stands out for a wide number of virtues rather uncommon for singers of his time: great musicianship, unique personal charm, modesty, beholder of a wonderful stage presence and a true professional. All of the aforementioned turn him into one of the best tenors of the XX century. Mr. Pertile captivated audiences with his liricospinto voice which bordered on tenore drammatico. He debuted many operas, most especially Boito’s Nerone (May 1st 1923) his farewell from the stage, Wolf-Ferrari’s Sly (December 29, 1927) and Mascagni’s Nerone (1935).

3.- Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957)

Considered as Caruso’s true heir, Mr. Gigli made his debut in the principal role of the operetta La Fuga di Angelica. Nevertheless, his greatest moments arrived at a later date, especially with the appearance of Verismo operas. He starred in almost twenty movies and performed sixty two different opera roles. He was empowered with a spinto tenor voice and an enveloping and velvety timbre quality. Considered as one of the most beautiful voices in opera, he was much criticised for his stage aggrandisements. He was also associated to the Italian dictator Mussolini’s Fascist movement.

4.- Giacomo Lauri Volpi (1892- 1979)

An exceptional tenor in the pre- and middle Romantic repertoire and especially in Verismo operas thanks to the elegance of his musical phrasing. He sang from Les Huguenots to Otello, from I Puritani to Il Trovatore…from Donizetti to Mascagni. Mr. Lauri Volpi was in constant search of the concept of beauty in his singing. He also had a very characteristic vibrato typical of late XIX century singing school. 

5.- Jussi Björling (1911- 1960)

According to the great Dietrich Ficher Dieskau, Mr. Björling “was not a singer, he was God”. Graced with one of the most beautiful tenor voices of the XX century, Jussi Björling stood out for his musicianship and singing line. He was a very passionate person who possessed the ability to deprive his emotions of unnecessary excesses. His voice was equipped with a great technique and was never used as a means of personal glory but only and always at the service of the music he interpreted. A vocal score was very much something of a holy item for him and his high-standing ideas of the great vocal art directed him towards specializing himself in both the Italian and French repertoire. He died at the age of 49, a victim of alcohol.

6.- Carlo Bergonzi (1914-2014)

Born near the city of Busseto, Verdi’s hometown, he started his career as a baritone with roles like Silvio and Alfio. At a certain point, he decides to switch over to the tenor register and makes his debut as Andrea Chenier. From that moment on he takes on the bulk of Verdian tenor roles with which he is very successful. One can always recognize Mr. Bergonzi by the extraordinary phrasing he displays and his exquisite artistic subtleties. Towards the end of his career, he strangely enough decided to interpret the role of Otello at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The performance was highly unsuccessful and he had to be substituted towards the middle of the opera. Nevertheless, rehearsal recordings of the same opera allow the listener to enjoy an extraordinary Bergonzi in the role of the Moor of Venice. That performance was also attended by Domingo, Pavarotti and Carreras.

7.- Mario del Mónaco (1915-1982)

He was a self-taught singer endowed with a natural dramatic tenor voice. An important part of his international acclaim is due to his vocal power. Credited with a splendid legato, his interpretations improved over the course of time. He started his career with the role of Turiddu from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera which he sang on many occassions and brought him much recognition and fame. History will nevertheless remember him for his extraordinary rendition of Verdi’s Otello.

8.- Alfredo Kraus (1927- 1999)

Alfredo Kraus was undoubtedly a very unique and different singer, highly disciplined and very demanding in his job. He acquired a highly personal and formidable technique which allowed him international triumph with only a handful of operatic roles: principally Wether, Rigoletto, Puritani and Traviata, having sung the latter in Lisbon with Maria Callas. Mr. Kraus did not only sing the roles, he truly embodied his characters in an impeccable manner. His very personal and peculiar technique made it difficult for him to set the trend for other singers, yet he is undeniably one of the best
singers of the XX century. A current singer who bears close resemblance both in terms of technique and repertoire is Celso Albelo.

9.- Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007)

Nobody can forget the utter beauty and splendour of this great tenor’s voice, in fact his unique timbre makes it possible to recognise him with the simple sound of just one note. Luciano Pavarotti is possibly the most popular singer in the history of opera. His art is symbolised by the wonderful exquisiteness of his sublime singing which embodied great qualities for the bel canto repertoire and Verdi. His Rigoletto, Ballo in Maschera and Bohème will most certainly go down in history. 

In 1961 he won a singing competition which allowed him to make his debut in the Teatro Reggio Emilia. The turning point in his career came in 1963 when he was called in to substitute an ill-disposed Giuseppe Di Stefano in London’s Covent Garden. Together with his colleagues  Plácido Domingo and José Carreras they began the series of popular concerts known as “The Three Tenors” which has undoubtedly been an important contribution to popularizing opera and classical music all over the world.

10.- Plácido Domingo (1941)

With Plácido Domingo one is forced to seriously rethink the world of opera since we are confronted with a one-of-a-kind singer. You may like or dislike his timbre and way of singing, but no one more than he has contributed to opera (except maybe Maria Callas). His extensive repertoire both as a tenor and baritone will probably knock you off your heels. At the beginning of his career his voice displayed a decidedly baritone-type color, even though in one of his first recordings, Weber’s Oberón,

one can hear a light tenor sound. He has accomplished an extraordinary amount of feats in the world of music, highlighted by his continuous support to young talent through his Operalia singing competition. Plácido Domingo has an incombustible working capacity and a true love for music which allows him to keep on studying even after a fifty-year-long career. Lately, he has decided to sing as a baritone, he calls it going «back to the roots». This has been a source of discrepancy among critics and opera lovers. What no one will ever begin to question is that his authentic passion and dedication puts him on the track of the best tenors of the XX century. 

Francisco García-Rosado (Trans. Vasco Fracanzani)