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Today's 12 Greatest Opera Singers

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Today's 12 Greatest Opera Singers

by Francis Merson on June 29, 2011 (June 29, 2011) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Comment Now
Limelight's panel of experts presents 12 opera stars making musical history.

 

Renée Fleming

“She is the total package. A beautiful woman with a wonderful sound, compelling artistry and innate musicality.”  Maree Ryan

Famed for her beauty of tone and personal charm, American soprano Renée Fleming has become a sweetheart of the operatic stage, triumphing with audiences and critics alike in a diverse array of roles. Offstage, she is a national icon, inspiring perfume and desserts and even guest-starring on Sesame Street

Fleming’s big break came in 1988, when she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and subsequently made her Houston Grand Opera debut as the Countess Almaviva, a role which would become a mainstay of her career. Debuts with other major American and European houses followed, and Fleming soon established herself as a major star. 

Fleming’s opulent timbre lends itself particularly well to the lyrical heroines of Richard Strauss: she has enjoyed rapturous acclaim as his Marschallin, Arabella and Countess Madeleine, and recorded the title role of his lesser-known opera Daphne

Fans of Fleming may declare themselves prepared to bask forever in the sheer loveliness of her sound, but it seems the soprano herself is more restless. Her increasingly adventurous career combines warhorses with rarities: the Metropolitan Opera recently staged Rossini’s rarely heard Armida for her.

Lately, Fleming has moved into genre-defying territory on record, including a collection of songs by artists as unexpected as Mars Volta and Leonard Cohen. With a career of such endurance and artistic integrity under her belt, she has surely earned the right to live a little dangerously.

 Best on Disc 

Mozart Arias
Renée Fleming, sop; Orchestra of St Luke’s/Mackerras.
Decca 4526022

One of Fleming’s earliest solo recordings and one of her finest: a masterclass in Mozartian elegance. 

Dvorák Rusalka

Renée Fleming, sop; Ben Heppner, ten; Eva Urbanová, ms; Iván Kusnjer, bar; CPO/Mackerras. Decca 4663562.
Luscious and lachrymose, Fleming makes Dvorák’s tragic mermaid her own.

Best on Stage

 

Natalie Dessay

“I love the courage and emotion in her singing. And she does crazy so well!”  Emma Matthews

Natalie Dessay is an odd creature, a coloratura soprano who has become as famous for her dramatic acuity as for her high-flying pyrotechnics, imbuing some of the repertoire’s frilliest showcases with a depth even their composers probably didn’t envisage. She’s prone to inflammatory statements about the primacy of theatre over mere vocal decoration – risky statements, perhaps, but Dessay has the virtuosic, if occasionally idiosyncratic, talent to back them up.

Dessay rose to fame as a proponent of two fiendish cornerstones of the coloratura repertoire, Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Strauss’s Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos), flying fearlessly into the stratosphere while determinedly unearthing new dramatic subtleties in both roles. She is also among her generation’s finest interpreters of Lucia di Lammermoor, bringing a raw fragility to the role while maintaining the technique to assail every roulade and trill of Donizetti’s score.

Both on stage and on disc, Dessay seems inclined not so much to dig out obscurities as to revolutionise the mainstream repertoire. She stood firmly behind Mary Zimmerman’s controversially modernised La sonnambula at the Met, for instance, and her kooky comic gifts have lately made a revelation of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. If her repertoire choices are mostly conservative, however, her interpretations are anything but. Always interesting, occasionally polarizing, she stands out as one of the opera world’s most vital forces.

Best on Disc 

 

French Opera Arias
Natalie Dessay, sop; Choeur Les Eléments; Orchestra du Capitole du Toulouse/Plasson.
Virgin 5456102

Dessay flaunts her coloratura frills and emotional depth in a selection of favourites and rarities.

 

Cleopatra
Natalie Dessay, sop; Le Concert d'Astrée/Haim
Virgin Classics 9078722

Released to coincide with performances of the role in Paris this year, this collection of Cleopatra's arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare (including some customarily cut) shows Dessay in sparkling voice as ever.

Best on Stage

 

Anna Netrebko

“Like the very best singers, Netrebko is a complete ‘stage animal’ who draws us into her magical world.”  Anthony Legge

Russian-born Anna Netrebko has two pivotal strengths: an extremely thrilling sound and a mysterious allure that makes it impossible to look away when she is performing on stage. Netrebko, who regularly turns up on the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, rose to fame in style. It was a triumphant Salzburg Festival debut in 2002 as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni that led her to be known as  “das Wunder von Salzburg”. To this day, her fame is greatest in the German-speaking world. When not performing with the great opera companies of Western Europe and the US, she frequently returns to the Kirov Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre in
St. Petersburg to collaborate with her mentor Valery Gergiev. (Ironically, she used to wash the floors there while a student.) 

Her true lyric voice, while it lacks the agility to shine in bel canto, has a dark, velvety quality well suited to romantic repertoire. There is also a certain low-rent glamour to Netrebko which makes her perfect for the title roles in Manon and La traviata. In an LA production of Manon this quality was exploited to the full, as Netrebko was made to dress in skimpy underwear and pole-dance like a porn starlet. Her sex appeal makes the soprano a marketer’s dream, and she sells records in figures that make pop singers gasp. Perhaps the supreme testament to her popular fame is her inclusion in the TIME 100 list – the magazine’s rather whimsical list of the world’s most influential people. If any soprano of today could be called a superstar – and might actually desire that label – it is Netrebko.

Best on Disc

 

Souvenirs

Anna Netrebko, sop; Prague Philharmonia/Villaume. DG 4777451

These short pieces by everyone from Dvorák to Guastavino match Netrebko’s voice, rather than popular taste. Her most satisfying solo disc. 

 

Puccini La bohème

Anna Netrebko, sop; Rolando Villazón, ten; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/De Billy 

This rather schmalzy feature film opera pits a luscious-voiced Netrebko against her favourite partner Villazón.

Best on Stage

 

 

Cecilia Bartoli

“It is impossible to look past Cecilia Bartoli, who has brought
so much, and worked so tirelessly for opera.” 
Damien Beaumont

 

If Cecilia Bartoli didn’t exist, it’s unlikely anybody would have dreamt her up. Eccentric, fearless and exceptionally passionate, she occupies a unique position in the operatic scene. She is an opera singer better known for her esoteric recordings than her stage performances; a mezzo soprano who now sings mostly soprano roles; and a musical – not to mention commercial – force to be reckoned with.

Rising to prominence at an unusually early age, Bartoli won global recognition at a point where most mezzos are still slogging through conservatoria. More remarkably still, having risen so quickly to the top, she has established herself as a trailblazing operatic adventuress, unearthing long lost jewels of baroque and Romantic opera and turning them into improbable chart-toppers. 

With the clout now to sing and do exactly what she pleases, Bartoli has practically abandoned opera performance in favour of her recording projects and attendant concerts – a move which might seem more self-indulgent were her dedication to the music not so effusively apparent.

Bartoli’s singing can be as unorthodox, and as audience-dividing, as her career path, able to inspire intense devotion and vehement criticism. Her messa di voce is exquisite, her phrasing lyrical and sensitive; but her coloratura, while fiendishly precise, is berated by some for resembling machine-gun fire, and her frenetic physicality is arguably as prone to irritate as it is to enchant. The commitment, depth and sincerity of her singing, though, must surely be admired. 

Best on Disc

Rossini Heroines 
Cecilia Bartoli, ms; Orchestra and Chorus of La Fenice/Marin
Decca 4360752

Almost 20 years after its release, Bartoli’s stunning Rossini is still the one to beat. 

The Vivaldi Album
Cecilia Bartoli, ms; Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini
Decca 4665692

One of Bartoli’s first and finest excursions into obscure repertoire: a whirlwind of revelatory virtuosity.

 

Best on Stage

 

Elina Garanca 

“Garanca’s Cenerentola for The Met blew me away.
Such easy coloratura!” 
Amelia Farrugia

This Latvian-born singer ticks all the boxes for a world-class mezzo of today – ravishing physical beauty, a bell-like purity of tone and a voice able to navigate all the cascades of bel canto. The suitability of her voice colour for that repertoire was noted by her first singing teacher in Latvia, whose advice rang true when, in 1998, with only ten days’ notice, Garanca performed the role of Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. It was a watershed. Opera houses in Western Europe pricked up their ears, and Elina was whisked off to the Frankfurt Opera in 2000, where she gained wide attention in The Barber of Seville as a Rosina who can not only sing the part, but looks it. Vienna State Opera and Helsinki Opera subsequently invited her to sing in their Barber: then her career snowballed – appearances on an album by fellow Russian-speaker Anna Netrebko, a turn as Dorabella at the Paris Opéra-Palais Garnier, a Met debut as Rosina, invitations to festivals in Salzburg, Istanbul, Napa Valley… 

Elina is also comfortable exploring her masculine side in the trouser roles, singing Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Covent Garden and Vienna (where she outshone Netrebko’s Giulietta). This year has been spent mainly in a victory lap of solo recitals around Europe after the release of her last album Bel Canto. But later in 2010 she reprises Carmen at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. That’s just how versatile Garanca is: she can switch from the vocal calisthenics of Romeo to the gushings of Carmen without pausing for air. 

 

Bellini I Capuleti e i Montecchi
Anna Netrebko, sop; Elina Garanca, ms; Vienna Symphony/Luisi
DG 477 8031

The noble metal in the mezzo’s voice is a perfect foil for Netrebko’s creamy tone. This CD put Garanca in the big league.

 

Bel Canto
FTC di Bologna/Abbado.
DG 477 7460

Garanca teamed up with scholar Luca Gorla to choose these forgotten gems of the bel canto repertoire. 

 

Best on Stage

 

Joyce DiDonato 

“DiDonato is an unbelievably generous singer, who shares the joy of her talent with the audience in every role.  Steven Murdoch

There is a moment that encapsulates all that is charming about American mezzo Joyce DiDonato. In a performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia at Covent Garden in 2008, DiDonato slipped onstage and broke her right fibula (someone must have wished her to “break a leg”). Rather than call a lawyer to sue the Royal Opera, she finished the first act hobbling. For act two, DiDonato donned a pair of crutches. But it doesn’t end there: she sang the five remaining scheduled performances in a wheelchair – with all the joie de vivre that has made her a darling of the stage. 

In a world of opera divas with big voices and bigger egos, a robust, workaday attitude to the profession is rare. DiDonato’s lack of affectation is usually ascribed to her upbringing as the sixth of seven children in a working-class Irish family in Prairie Village, Kansas (her surname is a relic from her first marriage). Now a doyenne of grand opera, DiDonato has not lost a certain small-town earthiness, which makes her the mezzo of choice for male roles such as Cherubino. She is also a fearless vocal technician, handling the thorniest Rossini parts – the title role of La Cenerentola and Elena in La Donna del Lago – with stupendous ease. With a radiant stage personality and the most rarefied vocal gifts, Joyce DiDonato is a mezzo it's hard not to like. 

 

Rossini: Colbran, the Muse 
Joyce DiDonato, ms; Orchestra
dell’ Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Muller 
Virgin Classics 6945790

Rossini’s wife and muse Isabella Colbran is given a lavish tribute by the spirited DiDonato.

 

Rossini Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Joyce Didonato, ms; Juan Diego Florez, ten; Pietro Spagnoli, bar; Ferruccio Furlanetto, bass; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Pappano
Virgin Classics 6945819

A performance that is already legendary: DiDonato sings Rosina with flawless technique despite a broken leg.

Best on Stage

 

Juan Diego Flórez 

“A deceptively light, lyrical voice which can surmount the greatest challenges of bel canto with seemingly effortless ease.”  Anthony Clarke

Born and raised in Peru, tenor Juan Diego Flórez originally intended to follow in his father’s footsteps as a popular singer. In the course of his studies, however, a classical voice asserted itself, and Flórez soon found his vocation in the florid bel canto roles which continue to form the backbone of his career. 

In an era when young singers are often pushed, either by mentors or their own ambitions, to sing far too much, far too soon, Flórez maintains a remarkably careful approach to his repertoire choices. He rarely sings anything which might be deemed too heavy, focusing instead on roles which best showcase his light, vibrant and exceedingly agile voice.

Flórez’s specialty is the virtuosic tenor parts of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, and particularly their comedies, which give his fluid coloratura and charmingly boyish stage presence plenty of space to flourish. Arguably his greatest claim to fame has been Tonio in La fille du régiment, a role whose central tenor aria contains a fiendish nine high Cs. Flórez broke La Scala’s 74-year-old no-encore tradition by reprising it. Another career-defining moment took place this year, when Flórez rushed to the Met to sing the lead in Rossini's Le Comte Ory just minutes after delivering his first child.

His is not the most obviously glamorous voice. The timbre, though bright and distinctive, can take on a nasal edge, while his natural limitations – both vocal and temperamental – keep him out of the repertoire’s more swoon-inducing and melodramatic roles. Yet his technical mastery, scrupulous musicianship and natural charisma have a thrill all of their own, and it is these which have made a superstar of Flórez, allowing him to carve out a robust career in music to which he is ideally suited, without falling into the traps of instant fame.

Best on Disc

 

Rossini Matilde di Shabran
Annick Massis, sop; Juan Diego Flórez, ten; Bruno Taddia, bass; Orquesta Sinfonica De Galicia/Frizza. Decca 4757688

An award-winning live CD with Flórez scintillating at its centre.

 

Arias for Rubini
Juan Diego Flórez, ten; Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/R. Abbado
Decca 4759079

A virtuosic exploration of music written for Giovanni Battisa Rubini, Flórez’s nineteenth-century counterpart.

Best on Stage

 

 Plácido Domingo

“Domingo changed my life when I heard him sing Otello live – I decided to become a conductor.”  Brett Weymark

Had we gathered a panel 30 years ago, Plácido Domingo would have made the list. Today, he has sung his way through a staggering 128 opera roles, more than any other tenor in history. The remarkable thing about Domingo, however, is not a question of quantity, but of quality. As his career progresses, Domingo’s voice keeps growing in beauty. His recordings of the ’70s, although accomplished, have not the masterful ease of Domingo today. Known in opera circles as a lyric tenor of quality since his Met debut in 1965, he became a household name as one of the Three Tenors, bursting into the living rooms of more than a billion viewers during the 1990 World Cup. His status as the favourite tenor of sports fans was later made official when he recorded a duet with Sarah Brightman for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. 

His voice has a dark, baritonal quality, yet shows no strain reaching the heights required for roles such as Calaf in Turandot. Indeed, it is a voice that knows few limitations. In January this year, Domingo even moved down a register to sing as a baritone in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera. In a way, his career has come full circle – his first singing roles were as a baritone in the zarzuela company run by his parents. Today, at the age of 70, Domingo shows no signs of slowing down, performing in New York one night, Milan the next. Miraculously, he does this without sacrficing any quality of performance. Not even the most carping critic could deny Domingo’s status as one of opera’s living greats.

Best on Disc

 

Verdi Otello
Plácido Domingo, ten; Cheryl Studer, sop; Sergei Leiferkus, bar; Opéra Bastille Orchestra and Chorus/Chung.
DG 439 805-2

Domingo is unmatched in the heavier Verdi roles, as this recording demonstrates.

 

Wagner Lohengrin
Plácido Domingo, ten; Jessye Norman, sop; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, bar; Vienna Philharmonic/Solti.
Decca 421 053-2

With Norman and Solti in their prime, Domingo brings a gorgeous, Italianate sense of line to the title role.

Best on Stage

 

Jonas Kaufmann

“Kaufmann has Wunderlich’s magical fusion of Heldentenor power and lyrical tenderness in equal quantities.”  Greg Keane

Jonas Kaufmann has been hailed by many as the greatest German lyric tenor since Fritz Wunderlich, especially since his 2009 recording of Die Schöne Müllerin has become regarded as a new benchmark. But, like most of the singers on this list, Kaufmann has made a career out of his versatility, garnering plaudits for his roles in Italian, French and, of course, German opera. His Florestan is a perfectly controlled mixture of agony and exaltation. His Don Jose gets the kind of acclamation rarely reserved for any tenor not called Domingo. While Kaufmann’s voice is capable of the most lyrical sweetness, making him an accomplished performer of Lieder, one is constantly astonished by the size of his voice on the opera stage. 

He began his stage career at the Staatstheater Saarbrücken in 1994, then did the rounds of the German opera houses, becoming known for his Tamino in Die Zauberflöte and Belmonte in Die Entführung. Now based in Zurich, where he has had a contract at the opera house since 2001, Kaufmann has moved into the darker waters of Wagner, performing the title roles of Parsifal and Lohengrin. The tenor’s good looks – more Latin lover than German Heldentenor – are also no disadvantage to the singer in a recording business desperate to make opera look sexy. After a calling-card first solo album for Decca, his sophomore album is a more focused effort of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Kaufmann has taken a slightly too highbrow path to repeat the stadium success of The Three Tenors – but his talent is a match for any of theirs.

Best on Disc

 

Romantic Arias 
PPO/Armiliato.
Decca 4759966 

The debut solo album is a smart showcase of Kaufmann’s versatility in Italian (Puccini and Verdi), German (Weber and Wagner) and French repertoire (Gounod and Bizet). 

 

Bizet Carmen 
Jonas Kaufmann, ten; Anna Caterina Antonacci, sop; Royal Opera Orchestra/Pappano.
Decca 0743312

Kaufmann one-ups the charismatic Antonacci with his intense portrayal of a young corporal driven mad by sexual obsession.

Best on Stage

 

Bryn Terfel

“Terfel has made his career the good, old-fashioned way, thanks to his remarkable natural voice and fine acting.”  Warwick Fyfe

With his infectious warmth, imposing presence and one of the most immediately recognisable voices in the business, Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel has garnered a breadth of public affection not often accorded to opera singers. And while he has reciprocated that love with frequent excursions into popular and traditional repertoire, Terfel has also maintained just as forceful a presence in the sphere of opera, winning critical plaudits as easily as hearts. 

Terfel’s first major success after graduating from college was in the 1989 Cardiff BBC Singer of the World competition, in which he won the Lieder prize and came second in the main competition to another future superstar, the Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. A series of Mozart roles saw him take both England and the United States by storm, with Figaro in particular proving his passport to stardom. 

The ensuing decades have seen Terfel broaden his repertoire to include darker, more dramatic roles, including Scarpia, Jochanaan (Salome) and several Wagner roles. His interest in lighter fare has persisted, however, with concerts and recordings of Broadway hits and folk songs a prominent part of his artistic output. His rich, resonant voice is remarkably adaptable, sounding as idiomatic and persuasive when plumbing villainous depths as in a buoyant ditty. On stage
and off, Terfel combines lovability with serious talent to create that elusive charm that can only be called star quality.  

 

Opera Arias
Bryn Terfel, b-bar; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Levine
Decca 4458662

A parade of bass-baritone hits sung with inimitable Terfel panache.

 

The Vagabond
Bryn Terfel, b-bar; Malcolm Martineau, pno
Decca 4459462

Terfel turns his hand to English song with sonorous beauty.

 

Best on Stage

 

Simon Keenlyside

“Keenlyside is a committed performer, musician and colleague who frequently breathes new life into well-worn roles.”  Brian Castles-Onion

One of opera’s more curious recent trends has been the burgeoning phenomenon of so-called “barihunks” – baritones known as much for their good looks and frequent shirtlessness as they are for their vocal talents. If the dashing Simon Keenlyside fits the bill, however, it is only incidental. His renown far predates the term, and in any case, his eloquent artistry and keen intelligence are more than enough to support his ascendancy in the operatic firmament.

In the early 1990s Keenlyside performed as a member of the Scottish Opera ensemble, earning his stripes in a range of key baritone roles. In the same period he made debuts with a number of major companies, including Covent Garden, where he remains a fixture and a major drawcard. 

Keenlyside’s lithe, elegant baritone and sharp theatrical instincts have seen him successfully tackle a wide range of repertoire, from Monteverdi to Mozart to Thomas Adès. His wide-eyed Papageno, filmed at the Royal Opera, was a revelation, while his performances as Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet have a gravitas which belies the opera’s silliness.

He maintains a passion for art song, and is a dedicated and frequent recitalist. Combining the intellectualism of a first-rate Lieder singer with the electric presence of an operatic performer, Keenlyside represents the best of both worlds, and triumphs in each of them.

 

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro
Simon Keenlyside, bar; Véronique Gens, sop; Patrizia Ciofi, sop; Lorenzo Regazzo, b-bar; Angelika Kirchschlager, ms; Concerto Köln/Jacobs.
Harmonia Mundi HMC90181820

Witty and refined, Keenlyside’s Count strikes an ideal balance between drama and farce.

Schumann Dichterliebe; Brahms Lieder
Simon Keenlyside, bar; Malcolm Martineau, pno
Sony 88697566892

Sensitive Lieder singing from a master of the form. 

 

Best on Stage

 

René Pape 

“René Pape has the vocal beefiness of a bass with the elegance of a Neopolitan tenor. Rarely has the role of Sarastro been sung with such beauty.”  Roberta Small

René Pape is known as the “black diamond bass” – probably as much for his adamantine timbre as for the ease with which he sings complex repertoire. One look at the man, with his broad soldiers and mountainous height, tells you he was born to sing Wagner. He started his career as a Giant in Das Rheingold and Hunding in Die Walküre before finally graduating to Wotan in May of this year at La Scala under Daniel Barenboim. At 45, Pape is the ideal age for the role. 

Pape's central bass voice has all the guts of a basso profondo, and is so huge it seems his massive frame was designed especially to house it. Apart from singing just about every bass role in the German repertoire, he has mastered Méphistophélès in Faust, Escamillo in Carmen and the Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila. He has one solo album under his belt, for Deutsche Grammophon, entitled Gods, Kings & Demons, which just about sums up all the opera roles he is called upon to play. Pape also filmed the parts of The Speaker and Sarastro for Kenneth Branagh’s version of The Magic Flute. But his most adventurous project has been Mein Herz brennt, a song-cycle by a childhood friend, Torsten Rasch, based on works by the industrial rock group Rammstein (the modern equivalent of Wagner, perhaps). 

His Wagner is more lyrical than that of most basses, as he strives to sing in long, lyrical lines, inspired by the approach of Plácido Domingo (with whom he sang Wagner in Berlin, Munich and New York). As a singer, he says he wants to bring more Mozart to Wagner, and more Wagner to Mozart. Or, in his own words, “to sing Wagner more cantabile and Mozart with more, shall we say, testicles”.  

 Best on Disc

Gods, Kings & Demons 
Staatskapelle Dresden/Sebastian Weigle
DG 477 6408

It takes a lot of work for a true bass to get a solo recording contract. The very fact Pape has done this album for DG means it must be something special.  

Mozart The Magic Flute
Dorothea Röschmann, sop;
Erika Miklósa, sop; Christoph Strehl, ten; René Pape, bass; Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Abbado, 
DG 000289 477 6319 2

This album of highlights from Abbado’s first Flute includes Pape at his booming best as Sarastro.

Best on Stage

 

 

Thanks to our panel

Warwick Fyfe, baritone; Amelia Farrugia, soprano; Emma Matthews, soprano; Brian Castles-Onion, conductor; Brett Weymark, conductor; Anthony Legge, conductor; Damien Beaumont, ABC presenter; Maree Ryan, chair of vocal studies, Sydney Conservatorium; Sarah Noble, opera critic; Anthony Clarke, Limelight critic; Greg Keane, Limelight critic; Ken Page, Limelight critic; Francis Merson, Limelight editor; Steven Murdoch, Limelight reader; Roberta Small, Limelight reader.