To answer this question, I have selected Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) to represent his generation since it’s almost unanimously agreed that he’s the greatest of them all.
But is he the greatest who ever lived?
There are several other contenders to this title:
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), who was an Italian opera singer and one of the most famous tenors in history. He was the most popular singer in any genre in the first 20 years of the 20th century. His extraordinary voice, known for its range, power, and beauty, made him one of the best-known stars of his time.
Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957), was an Italian singer, widely regarded as one of the greatest operatic tenors of his time. He had probably the most beautiful lyric tenor voice of his time. He had a large voice, which — with Gigli’s extraordinary technique and vocal understanding — allowed him to make frequent forays into repertoire normally reserved for spinto and dramatic tenors.
Jussi Björling (1911-1960), was a Swedish operatic tenor and one of the most highly regarded singers of his time. Björling was one of the few non-Latin tenors to rival the Italian dominance of the opera world at that time.
Mario Lanza (1921-1959), was an American tenor. His voice was considered by many to rival that of the great Enrico Caruso. While his highly emotional style was not always universally praised by critics, he was immensely popular and his many recordings are still prized today.
Franco Corelli (1921-2003), was an Italian tenor active in opera from the 1950s to 1976. He was noted for his charismatic stage presence and physical attractiveness as well as his powerful voice. He became famous for his ability to sing at many dynamic levels, unusual in a so large a voice; for example, he performed the climactic high note that ends “Celeste Aida” with a diminuendo, an amazingly difficult effect for a tenore robusto. With his unusually dark vocal color and baritonal lower range he infused even the warhorses of Neapolitan songs like ‘O Sole Mio’ with freshness and authenticity, while his huge and electrifying top notes moved audiences to roaring delirium. He was a galvanic stage animal, and a very handsome man. In Italy, he was called “Golden Thighs.”
[Warhorses? Reminds me of breeches... ]
Some points of view I noted in my trawlings:
Jussi Bjorling without a doubt. Caruso was certainly the first ‘great’ but wasn’t that good — often had to have music transposed down so that he could get the top notes! Pavarotti of course was magnificent but had not the finesse of Bjorling, whereas Jussi could match him in power and in singing full top Cs and even higher.
Caruso, hands down!!! I almost always cry when I listens to my father’s Caruso records.
Excellent All but Pavarotti’s stage presence was in a class of his own…this wonderful Opera master will be missed very much.
How sad that he is gone now, i loved Pavarotti who was “bigger” than life….in many ways. I also remember the remarkable voice of Mario Lanza who’s left a huge impression on me as a child…even on that scratchy old 45 record player. What special gifts these men received from God to share with the world..talent like that doesn’t come along often. All of the above are wonderful but these two were my absolute favorites in Opera.
After listening to several of the “critically-acclaimed” tenors of the last century, when considering emotion, technique, power, etc, overall IMHO Bjorling is right there with Corelli and Lanza – they are obviously in a class by themselves. I will say however, that it would have been very interesting to hear Caruso’s voice with the later recording technology.
One unique thing about jussi is his efertless singing on the hight combined with efertless singing in the lower parts, this is one thing that sets him apart from Pavarotti – whose lower parts are really weak.
I have a well trained ear, and I can tell you that yes, Bjorling has a more powerful voice than Pavarotti and maybe he could also keep notes longer. Pavarotti, though, had an incredible voice full of harmonics, and he could use it so well, that could easily reach the last row in a theatre even with a big orchestra playing loud. I was lucky enough to hear him singing in a concert, and it was wonderful.
Caruso was number 1, the best ever, Not far behind was Bjorling and Gigli. Sorry but Pav doesn’t come in the first 15. He is not true Belcanto!
I don’t believe you’ll find many who agree that Caruso “exagerates (sic) the sob-trills (sic) much more than Gigli.” The sobbing Gigli does that I’m speaking about is musically pointless and artificial and is inserted by Gigli generally at the end of a line of verse where he must have thought a few extra notes of his special warble would make a difference. Other than that he was a brilliant performer with possibly the second or third greatest tenor voice singing… anything.
I hate to say it, but on Nessun Dorma Lanza outdid Pavaroti.
I totally agree that Lanza struggled in the lower registers of Nessun Dorma. I’ve heard much better from him on other pieces. But you cannot deny the top of his range–solid, effortless, passionate, glorious. NOBODY can do that. He is the quintessential cross-over artist which in my book puts him heads and tails above any other opera or pop artist.
Everybody’s entitled to their opinion of course, and we can only judge those who had their voice recorded, preferably singing the same song, so that we can compare their performances.
Here’s 3 separate videos of Caruso, Gigli and Pavarotti singing O Sole Mio (which Elvis Presley redid as It’s Now or Never) followed by 4 separate videos of Bjorling, Lanza, Pavarotti and Corelli singing Nessun Dorma. All videos are either live or recorded.
O Sole Mio: Caruso, Gigli & Pavarotti
Nessun Dorma: Bjorling, Lanza, Pavarotti & Corelli