20 June 2017 at 10.41am | 17 Comments
Whether cast as heroic warriors, ardent lovers, romantic poets or revolutionary outsiders, tenors are the undisputed kings of opera. We look at a few of the greatest – and most challenging – tenor roles:
Idomeneo is a rare example of a tenor role with no love interest. However, Mozart more than makes up for it by giving the eponymous King of Crete one of the greatest virtuoso arias in the tenor repertory, 'Fuor del mar', and through his moving musical representation of Idomeneo's struggle to reconcile paternal love and religious duty.
Arnold – Rossini’s Guillaume Tell
Arnold famously led to the birth of the ‘modern tenor’, when an early interpreter, Gilbert Duprez, sang the high C in the Act IV cabaletta ‘Amis, amis’ in full voice rather than the customary falsetto. From the flamboyance of this stirring cabaletta to the lyricism of Arnold’s Act II duet with his beloved Mathilde and his mournful Act IV aria ‘Asile héréditaire’, there are plenty of vocal delights for any tenor bold enough to take on the challenge.
Arturo – Bellini’s I puritani
Luciano Pavarotti described the role of the heroic monarchist Arturo, caught between love and political duty during England’s Civil War, as ‘pure tightrope walking’. Particularly demanding episodes include the Act I aria ‘A te, o cara’ and the Act III ensemble ‘Credeasi misera’, in which the courageous Arturo has to sing some of the highest notes ever written for tenor.
Aeneas (Enée) – Berlioz’s Les Troyens
Stamina and versatility are the key skills for interpreters of Berlioz’s Trojan hero. Aeneas bursts onto the stage in Act I with high, declamatory music – but the role also calls for a singer capable of delicate lyricism, particularly in the sublime Act IV duet with Dido, ‘Nuit d’ivresse’. Keeping back enough energy for Act V’s heroic and despairing aria ‘Inutile regrets’, with its huge vocal range, is also crucial.
Siegfried – Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
Wagner’s Siegfried is arguably the hardest role in the dramatic tenor repertory. Episodes such as the Forging Song require immense vocal power, easy top notes and boundless energy. But it’s not all about decibels: the singer also has to convince as the tender, sympathetic lover of Act III of Siegfried and of Götterdämmerung’s death scene. Most importantly, he needs the stamina to keep going throughout two five-hour operas and still sound fresh at the end!
Otello is perhaps Verdi’s most challenging tenor role. It requires a wide vocal range, and the singer needs to project over a powerful orchestra. Otello also presents a host of dramatic challenges: his interpreter must convince as Act I’s heroic commander, and as the troubled, ultimately broken man of the later acts – and remain sympathetic despite his appalling actions.
Gherman – Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades
The role of Gherman not only requires a singer of great stamina – he’s rarely offstage – but also one with the acting skills to convey the character’s mental instability and obsessiveness, while making us sympathize with him in his love for Liza and his loneliness. The rewards for the tenor are great, though: Plácido Domingo described Gherman as ‘dramatically one of the most interesting characters I have ever played’.
Rodolfo is a character that many singers find it easy to empathize with: his enthusiasm for life, youthful romantic passion and fun-loving, humorous streak. The role also contains much glorious music, including ‘Che gelida manina’, one of opera’s most beautiful lyric tenor arias. No wonder that great tenors including Enrico Caruso, José Carreras and Pavarotti have listed Rodolfo among their favourite roles.
The Emperor – Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten
Strauss never gave tenors an easy time of it, and the Emperor outdoes even the role of Bacchus from Ariadne auf Naxos in its vocal difficulty. He makes his first appearance with a heroic aria set fiendishly high in the voice, and further challenges await in Act II when he sings a 12-minute monologue of almost unbearable intensity. Fortunately, the music is as consistently glorious as it is difficult!
Peter Grimes – Britten’s Peter Grimes
Peter Grimes’s ambivalent nature makes him one of opera’s most dramatically interesting roles. Is he a hero or a villain? A murderer or a visionary? And how much should we sympathize with him? Jon Vickers saw him as a Christ-like figure, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson as ‘a dangerous, violent, quixotic and very valuable person for whom things go wrong’. But whoever Grimes is, there’s no doubting his wonderful music, including the Act I aria ‘Now the Great Bear and Pleiades’.
Otello ran 21 June–15 July 2017 and was broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 28 June 2017.
The production is generously supported by Rolex and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Alfiya and Timur Kuanyshev, Lord and Lady Laidlaw, Mr and Mrs Baha Bassatne, John G. Turner and Jerry G. Fischer, Ian and Helen Andrews, Mercedes T. Bass, Maggie Copus, Martin and Jane Houston, Mrs Trevor Swete, Beth Madison, John McGinn and Cary Davis, the Otello Production Syndicate, The American Friends of Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund and an anonymous donor.
Read more: This article is part of the Voices of opera series