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10 of opera's greatest mezzo-soprano roles

Carmen isn’t the only sensual starring mezzo role – we round up some of our favourites, from Donizetti to Birtwistle.

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

19 December 2016 at 5.02pm | 10 Comments

Who says mezzo-sopranos have to play second fiddle? There are plenty of operas where composers say ‘soprano, schmoprano’, and give a mezzo the best tunes.

In tribute to this amazing voice type, we’ve picked out some of our favourites:

Léonor – Donizetti’s La Favorite

Léonor is a ‘fallen woman’, in love with an impetuous young man – a groundbreaking opera heroine who foreshadows Violetta in La traviata. Donizetti wrote Léonor for the French mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, who had a wide-ranging voice, and one of great beauty if the Act III aria ‘O mon Fernand’ is anything to go by.

Azucena – Verdi’s Il trovatore

Verdi made it clear that Azucena, a mezzo-soprano, was Il trovatore’s most important female character: ‘the principal role, finer and more dramatic than the other’. He gives her some of the most thrilling episodes in this blistering opera, including Part II’s show-stealing ‘Stride la vampa!’.

Didon – Berlioz’s Les Troyens

Berlioz wrote five wonderful dramatic mezzo-soprano roles, of which Didon is perhaps the greatest. The warm, rich timbre of the mezzo voice conveys the Queen of Carthage’s noble dignity, which she retains even during her closing suicide scene. In her Act IV love duet with Enée, ‘Nuit d’ivresse’, his tenor voice rises above hers to deliciously sensual effect.

Eboli – Verdi’s Don Carlo

Eboli is a passionate and sensual woman, who enters with the spectacular ‘Veil Song’ in Act II scene 2. She is capable of terrifying vindictiveness, as we see when Don Carlo rejects her love in Act III scene 1. However, Verdi also shows that she’s a woman with great capacities for love and remorse, highlighted in her magnificent Act IV scene 1 aria ‘O don fatale’.

Carmen – Bizet’s Carmen

Carmen’s sensuality, joie de vivre and independent spirit not only make her opera’s greatest femme fatale (with Saint-Saëns’s mezzo anti-heroine Dalila a close second) but also something of a feminist heroine. This is a show-stealing role – no wonder so many sopranos have tried to take it over.

Charlotte – Massenet’s Werther

The mellow timbre of the mezzo-soprano voice perfectly evokes the maternal gentleness of Charlotte, a substitute mother to her younger siblings. But Massenet also uses the mezzo-soprano’s wide range to show Charlotte’s repressed romantic passion in her Act III ‘Letter scene’, one of the most emotionally charged of operatic monologues.

Lyubasha – Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride

Rimsky-Korsakov gives the passionate Lyubasha some of the opera’s best music, starting with her melancholy Act I aria, an exquisite unaccompanied folksong. Her desperate plea for her lover Grigory not to abandon her is so beautiful and heartfelt that it’s impossible not to feel compassion for Lyubasha – even after she commits a dreadful crime later in the opera.

Princesse de Bouillon – Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur

A rare example of a leading mezzo role in fin-de-siècle Italian opera, the vengeful Princesse de Bouillon is another of opera’s great anti-heroines. She’s far more than a one-dimensional villainess though: her fiery Act II aria ‘Acerba volutta’ testifies to her intense devotion to her former lover Maurizio, as well as to her volatile, unstable temperament.

Countess Geschwitz – Berg’s Lulu

Countess Geschwitz, the first lesbian to figure in an opera, is the most sympathetic and humane character in Lulu. Berg highlights her noble nature through some ravishing music, particularly in the final bars of the opera, as Geschwitz soars to the highest notes in the mezzo-soprano range in her dying elegy to Lulu.

Ariadne – Birtwistle’s The Minotaur

Birtwistle exploits the full potential of the mezzo-soprano voice with this complex heroine. He conveys Ariadne’s fatalism through dark, chesty low notes, and illustrates her rage and frustration through thrilling forays into the high register. Nor does he forget the mezzo-soprano voice’s sensual qualities, highlighted in Ariadne’s solo scene where her voice interweaves with a jazzy alto saxophone melody.

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

This article has 10 comments

  1. Paul Braiden responded on 21 December 2016 at 9:31am Reply

    What no Lady Macbeth? Verdi specifically asked for a voice with power in the lower register.

  2. Michael de Navarro responded on 22 December 2016 at 12:34am Reply

    "The Lady" can (just be sung by mezzos with a top such as Shirley Verrett but it is really a soprano role (Top d at the end of the sleep walking scene) albeit the soprano needs a powerful chest voice, but why no Amneris? Much bigger and arguably more difficult sing than Berg's Countess

    • Richard responded on 22 December 2016 at 2:17pm

      Not only is Amneris difficult to sing -- she basically sits out Acts II and III, but has to keep her voice warmed up for all of the major singing she has to do in Act IV.

  3. Eric Bette Davis responded on 23 December 2016 at 7:04pm Reply

    Actually, the ideal range for Carmen is 'contralto' but this seems to have gone out of fashion. It sits best in the lower end of mezzo-sopranos and certainly should not be sung by sopranos looking to find popularity with 'crossover' audiences!

  4. Milene responded on 24 December 2016 at 12:08am Reply

    And no Dalila either... And Mon coeur... aria is such a beauty...

  5. Father Michael Schweers responded on 3 January 2017 at 5:15pm Reply

    Please, let's not forget some of the great Baroque roles which have taken on the mezzo singer. Although I am an American, I can still recall Dame Janet Baker doing such a stellar job with Handel's Giulio Cesare; what vocal control she had! And, let's not forget Marilyn Horne blowing the roof off the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco when she sang Orlando Furioso. When she sang Sorge l'irato nembro, I thought I would go mad!

  6. Paul Rhodes responded on 3 January 2017 at 8:16pm Reply

    Sometimes it all comes together for me. The most beautiful sensual romantic music, the singer who fits the role to perfection, the costumes and sets and the production / direction. Several brilliants examples here. How can one improve on purrrrrfection. Thanks for these examples

  7. Juliet Chaplin responded on 7 January 2017 at 5:50pm Reply

    How about Rossini's Rosina and La Cenerentola?

  8. Michael responded on 12 March 2017 at 10:01pm Reply

    Another vote for Rosina in the Barber to strike the right balance between lightness and emotion, and Dido in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas

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