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10 of opera's greatest bass-baritone roles

From devils and rogues, to lovers and rulers – who says tenors have to have all the fun?

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

30 January 2017 at 2.30pm | 15 Comments

The bass-baritone voice may have only been officially categorized in the late 19th century, but from Classical opera to the present day it has inspired many composers to create psychologically compelling and musically beautiful roles for those with more heft to their voice than your average tenor. Here are ten of our favourites:

Figaro – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

Mozart’s clever servant offers the bass-baritone a rare chance to play the romantic hero, with ravishing duets for Figaro and his bride-to-be, Susanna. There’s plenty of comic cunning to relish too, not least Figaro’s mock-militaristic Act I aria ‘Non più andrai’, and his attempts to deceive the Count in the Act II ensemble. Mozart’s other memorable bass-baritone creations include the seductive Don Giovanni and his comic side-kick Leporello.

Dulcamara – Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore

Dulcamara’s flamboyant Act I aria ‘Udite, udite, o rustici!’ and his ensuing duet with the gullible Nemorino provide bass-baritones with the ultimate tongue-twisting challenge, as the comic con-man chatters away at break-neck speed. But the ‘doctor’ has a good heart for all his deception, urging Adina to tell Nemorino her true feelings in their charming Act II duet.

Boris – Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov

Boris is one of opera’s most psychologically engrossing roles. He has almost certainly committed a horrific crime to further his ambitions. And yet, the remorse he expresses in his monologues, coupled with his deep love for his people, make it impossible for us not to sympathize with him. Once the property of basses, Boris has been performed in recent years by notable bass-baritones.

Escamillo – Bizet’s Carmen

Bizet makes up for the brevity of Escamillo’s role by giving him one of opera’s most exciting and rousing entrance arias: the Toreador’s Song, describing his triumphs in the bullring. Other lesser-known highlights include a lovely duet for Escamillo and Carmen in Act IV, which hints that these fiery spirits have found peace with each other.

Hans Sachs – Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Wagner wrote some of the greatest bass-baritone roles, and none more so than Hans Sachs. Pensive and wise, with a sense of fun and something of a temper, Sachs is one of the most humane and intriguing characters in opera – with wonderfully varied music, from the jovial ‘Cobbling Song’ in Act II to the introspective ‘Wahn’ Monologue in Act III. Wagner’s other fascinating bass-baritone protagonists include the Flying Dutchman and the mighty (three-opera!) role of Wotan in Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Sir John Falstaff – Verdi’s Falstaff

Verdi turned to the bass-baritone at the end of his career to create one of opera’s best comic characters: the Shakespearian fat knight Sir John Falstaff. This loveable rogue’s music moves like quicksilver from the grand ‘Onore’ monologue in Act I, through delicate nostalgia in the arietta ‘Quand’ero paggio’ in Act II to the melancholic Act III monologue ‘Mondo ladro’ – though a glass of mulled wine soon cheers him up!

Scarpia – Puccini’s Tosca

Puccini uses the bass-baritone voice’s large range and varied vocal colours to deftly convey Scarpia’s suave villainy. The exaggerated courtesy of his Act I exchange with Tosca, the growling menace of the Act I Te Deum, the violent excitement of his Act II soliloquy and the brutality of his Act II duologues with Tosca all create a vivid impression of a psychotic yet strangely charismatic man.

Jokanaan (John the Baptist) – Richard Strauss’s Salome

John the Baptist’s low-pitched, rapt prophecies from his prison cell – all the more unearthly as he is unseen – make Salome’s opening scene one of the most memorable in opera. Brought up from his dungeon, Jokanaan reveals a ferocious will as he forcefully rejects Salome’s seduction. Only when he urges her to seek salvation does his music shift to ardent, beautiful lyricism – if only she had listened!

Nick Shadow – Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress

He may be less well-known than Puccini's creation, but Nick Shadow (‘Old Nick’) gives Scarpia a run for his money for the title of Best Bass-Baritone Villain. Charmingly debonair in Act I, roguishly destructive in Act II, Shadow finally shows his true colours in Act III’s furious aria ‘I burn, I freeze!’, the dark timbre, wide range and sheer power of his voice creating a terrifying impression of devilish malignance as he condemns Tom Rakewell to insanity and descends to Hell.

The Protector – Benjamin’s Written on Skin

The Protector is an operatic descendant of Debussy’s jealous husband Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande. Just as Debussy contrasted Golaud’s dark bass-baritone with the boyish high baritone of Pelléas, Benjamin contrasts the anguished low-pitched utterances of the Protector – occasionally shifting into speech – with the serene purity of the Boy’s countertenor, offering a brilliant portrayal of a troubled and dangerously jealous man.

Read more: This article is part of the Voices of opera series

This article has 15 comments

  1. Sergio Alberto Gonzalez responded on 31 January 2017 at 8:50am Reply

    Non smetto di imparare cose nuove con il vostri post , grazie

  2. Rosemary Mathewson responded on 31 January 2017 at 3:37pm Reply

    Don't forget: Yeletsky in Pique Dame with the beautiful 'Ya vas llubju' (spelling?) or the Count in Nozze who should be included, if for no other reason, because he gets to sing 'perdono, Contessa.' And what about Wolfram singing 'Die Abendstern?' How about pretty much anything Hvorostovsky has sung in recital, on recording, or on stage? Somehow, the bass-baritone often seems to get a show stopper aria right in the middle of things. 'Di Provenza' anyone?

    • J Nolan responded on 31 January 2017 at 4:03pm

      You are 100% correct re: Dmitri.
      Hoping to hear him at Tanglewood in August.

    • john bernays responded on 1 February 2017 at 7:53pm

      Yes, geat roles indeed, but they are for true baritones, not bass-baritones as featured here. Mozart''s Count has been sung by bassier baritones, but he needs to have a different vocal timbre from Figaro.

    • Eugen responded on 8 March 2018 at 9:25pm

      1st things 1st. Wotan is THE bass baritone role, so that's a glaring omission...Hvorostovsky is not a bass baritone & Wolfram & Germont are not BB roles...neither are di Luna, Iago, Commendatore, Marcello, or Posa, all roles that others have mentioned.

  3. Mary-Lynne Edwards responded on 31 January 2017 at 5:15pm Reply

    You are so right Rosemary! Anything sung by Dima can be included - some personal favourites - Onegin, Yeletsky, Germont pere, di Luna or Renato/Anckarstrom. Of the roles given in the article I love Scarpia and Jokannan. It would have been helpful to have given cast details of the clips provided.

  4. mike frank responded on 31 January 2017 at 6:38pm Reply

    1. you left out the most important:wotan

    2. hovorostovsky is a baritone, NOT a bass-baritone -- there's a world of difference

  5. Barry Theodore responded on 31 January 2017 at 8:49pm Reply

    Never thought of Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. Brilliant! Great casting ROH.

  6. inez holmes responded on 31 January 2017 at 10:53pm Reply

    How about Ruggiero Raimondi as Don Giovanni/Scarpia/Iago? Or Sergei Leiferkus as Iago - surely one of the really great bass-baritone roles? And Willard White in Porgy and Bess? Me, I tend to fall in love with the bass-baritone rather than the tenor!

  7. Mary Craig responded on 3 February 2017 at 4:06pm Reply

    If, as here, you have categorised the baritone voice there seems to be a mix of baritone, bass baritone and buffo bass baritone repertoire listed. Mr Bernays is correct re a number of the roles listed. Then the Verdi baritone is something else again is it not? It is not just about tessitura. Surely the timbre of the voice plays a big part in all this as well? This opera business can be trickier than we think. What it is all about is how each one of us hear's things and to make it really complicated we all hear things in a different way. That is a scientific fact!
    Whatever, I would not want to do without it enriching my life! By the way Written On Skin is superb!

  8. Kia Wahlsten responded on 8 March 2017 at 1:40pm Reply

    Carlo Gerard in Giordano's Andrea Chénier is one of the most complex and interesting characters ever. He isn't a true villain, more a victim of the hard revolutionary times around 1789-1794. Trapped in his class, his awkward attempt to win Maddalena is clumsy but heartbreaking. I think Zeljko Lucic interpretation of Gerard is absolutely outstanding!

  9. Sibylle Luise Binder responded on 2 April 2017 at 8:24pm Reply

    I take Sir Thomas Allen as Don Giovanni Or as Ulysse. Besides he made me to feel for Beckmesser (who's an idiot, but kind of a poor one) And I do like Marcello in "Boheme" - he's such a cutie! I love Onegin (and you're right: Hvostorovsky is a wonderful Onegin) and Posa.

  10. Andy Gilliland responded on 17 April 2017 at 3:43pm Reply

    Kurt Moll, Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni- visceral, passionate and powerful.

  11. Geoff Moses responded on 11 July 2017 at 8:52pm Reply

    Is there such a thing as a bass baritone ? Most roles of these roles are bass roles proper . Figaro and Count are a bit high for a basso cantante true .Baroque and couple of Mozart lower roles excepted operatic bass sings high , Russian and French bass roles lie a bit higher than Italian and
    Wotan is helden (hero) baritone a heavier version of baritone like helden tenor .
    When a bass sings Wotan its usually a phAse at peak of their career (Tomlinson ,Morris for example ).
    One has to look at every role as an individual entity and not pigeonhole

    • CreatioExNihlio responded on 14 May 2018 at 3:52am

      Nice post and appreciate the commenting. Of course there is a bass-baritone fach. Their secondo passagio is at D4 natural. Because most of the literature was ignorant, except anecdotally, the successful ones cross over many roles that weren't written for their fach specifically. Note: Let's mention Samuel Ramey and his Faustian role specialty of which there was no mention. Cited as "the most recorded bass in opera", he was a bass-baritone with an ample bottom end. My hero and go-to for training examples. Terfel is OK, but Ramey is superb.

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