The greatest tenor who ever lived is not Luciano Pavarotti?

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

44 thoughts on “The greatest tenor who ever lived is not Luciano Pavarotti?

  1. john ross eddy

    What sound do you hear that protrays the role as composed and offers beauty, with commitment of sound. Very few tenors have the courage to give us pure, sincere, and commanding sound transcending the composer’s intent. I have a hunch that if Verdi, perhaps the greatest Italian Opera composer, heard Bjorling sing many of his major Operatic tenor roles – he would not have had Bjorling singing as the understudy to the other greats mentioned here. Verdi would, however, have reservations about Bjorling’s acting skills!

  2. dannydog

    Jussi Bjorling is head and shoulders above other tenors of the 2oth Century. A true lyric tenor with a voice like a bell.
    The other greats on par are Gigli, Pavarotti and Domingo. Unfortunately we have never heard Carreras at his best because of illness.
    Lanza had a great voice but it was never trained and although he would have liked too, he was just not capable of singing a full opera, he was really just a glorified pop singer.
    People talk about Caruso, but the recording techniques of the time could never do him justice so we cannot compare him fairly.
    To hear Bjorling at his very best, listen to La Boheme. Recorded in 1956. Conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. Jussi Bjorling is Rodolfo, Victoria de Los Angeles as Mimi with Robert Merrill as Marcello.
    Although in mono, it is considered one of the finest EMI opera recordings ever.
    If you listen, I think you will surely agree.

  3. dannydog

    Unfortunately Beecham’s LaBoheme was a studio recording, and as far as I am aware the performance was not filmed.
    Apparently it was Sir Thomas Beecham’s manager who realised that Victoria de Los Angeles, Bjorling and Beecham would all be in New York at the same time so the recording session was set up in the studio, legend has it that as time was very short Victoria recorded her part on the way to the airport.
    It is available on a two CD Pack EMI CDS 7 47235 8.
    When I mentioned great tenors, I regret I forgot Richard Tucker, without doubt the greatest American tenor. And of course we in Britain had Webster Booth who made some wonderful recordings. My personal favourite is him singing Handel’s ‘Where ‘ere you walk’.

  4. Merdewerk

    All of the greats above named were the greatest of their times. However, in my humble opinion, the greatest tenor of all time was Borje Salming! None could cry louder!

  5. Muskokaphotog

    Of course these were all great tenors, each with a different, yet admirable quality. The REALITY is, there are many top notch tenors today that have yet or never will get the fame of these. Personally, rather than centering our attention on these guys, go to your local opera co. performances and support what you can hear live. Salming, Salmon or Heppner.

  6. Hagop

    “To hear Bjorling at his very best, listen to La Boheme.” Yes, Bjorling singing La Boheme (with Tebaldi) is so beautiful.

    Just an important remark, how can we talk about best tenors without mentioning the name of Mario Del Monaco ? This man had an unbelievable voice !

  7. dannydog

    muskokaphotag
    how right you are.
    too many of us live in the past.
    me included.
    must be getting old.
    great comment.
    kind regards
    Dannydog

  8. private

    maria lanza, bjorling or everyone better than pavarotti??? the why you call him a good tenor??
    one of them had better high notes than pavarotti?? better lower notes than pavarotti??? better stage presence???
    better acting??? then i dont know why everyone call pavarotti KING OF HIGH Cs???i dont know why he is the most famous tenor in history(his new york concert with 500000 audience)??? who said that pavarotti’s lower notes are REALLY weak?? and for his high notes he sang up to an high F, isn’t enough?? if you listen to pavarotti’s recording then you will see he could keep high note for a long period.
    Bjorling was one of the best tenors but no the best tenor. I think its not a good way to compare tenors. if u like bjorling or lanza more it does not mean they are the best. think more and then compare.

  9. Henry Asher

    The same John Ross Eddy who sounded like Bjorling when he sang a Strauss song at the Aspen Fesitval in 1976?

  10. Carlo Carrioni

    Antonio Paoli (1871-1946), better known during his time as the King of Tenors and the Tenor of Kings. Envyed by Enrico Caruso due to the praise Paoli recieved by multiple Kings of the time including the Czar of Russia Nicholas II. Until now nobody has ever surpass Paoli’s Othello, Verdi and Pagliacci.

  11. James hanrahan

    I agree, Jussi Bjoerling was the greatest tenor voice I have ever heard. I attended his last 4 concerts in New York. I saw him at Carneige Hall, twice and at Hunter College Concert Hall twice, he was great! There are several other tenors who are often overlooked, to name just 3. Albert Lance, Aksel Schiotz and the most overlooked; Lauritz Melchior. Melchior was without a doubt the greatest “Heldentenor” that ever lived. No one has ever approched him singing the tenor roles in Wagner Operas. When he retired there wasn’t any tenor to take his place. He was also wonderful in films. He was in films, after he left opera and at that time he was in his fifties! He was as solid as a rock!

  12. David Dracup

    Because of the recordings on wax rolls Caruso is difficult to judge. Of the the modern tenors I am impressed by is Franco Corelli with his power. Gigli for his tone and clarity and I did think Pavarotti was marvellous when younger but lost it a little on the 3 tenors recordings . There are others Jussi Bjoerling who apperntly was mentioned by I think Carusos wife That if her husband was the king Then Bjoerling in her opinion was ther Prince of Tenors.

  13. Herbert VonK

    As for Pavarotti he lived in the times of the superstars, taking advantage of television and a certain amount of showbiz. Don’t forget Domingo, his voice cannot compete with the others, but his intelligence , taste and overall quality is important. That goes for Gedda and Kraus also, neither of which had the beauty of voice compared to many others, but they were seldom or ever ruining anything. A point that is often overlooked.

    Del Monaco is far to crude to be mentioned among these great ones, nor is Lanza worthy of such a company either. As for American tenors Peerce and Tucker towers high above Lanza. Never mind if he had a good voice, he didn’t do much with it. Sadly Peerce was overemotional so often, his voice is so exhilarating, in my view more beautiful than Tuckers. You could make a special list:

    The most wonderful legatos ever heard: Caruso
    The most wonderful pianissimós: Di Stefano
    The most noble singing: Thill
    The most exhilarating ‘forte tenor’: Corelli
    The foremost Wagnersinger: Melchior (and don’t forget Lorenz and James King!)
    The most stupendous high notes: Gedda (also Kraus and the young Bjoerling)
    The best overall performer: Domingo (and possbly Kraus)
    The most versatile (booming voice, good acting, big repertoire): Tucker
    The ‘it’ voice: Peerce
    The most beautiful voice: Bjoerling
    The rubber voice: Gigli (and Caruso)
    The foremost ‘tearjerker’: Di Stefano (and Bjoerling)
    The best acting on stage: Domingo
    The most even register: Fritz Wunderlich (and Caruso)
    The most clear pronounciation: Di Stefano
    The most overall energetic singing onstage: Pavarotti
    The best in light German opera and operetta: Tauber (and Gedda)

    Bonisolli may have had spectacular highnotes, but they are only high, not beautiful enough. We live in different times, scorning overemotional singing, it’s a bit ludicrous that Di Stefano and Bjoerling who were both accused of being cold, seems to be the ones that nowadays often bring tears in the eyes of the listener. If someone could’ve cured Corellis lisping, and taught him to abstain from his tricks, and instead use a little more subtleity, he would have been up there at the absolute top. Then it’s sad that Di Stefano ruined his top so early. Wunderlich’s breathing is a wonder (so is Caruso’s and Bjoerling’s too). It’s a difficult list to make, the first two:

    1.Caruso
    2. Melchior

    I am tempted to put Bjoerling as no 3, he had the most remarkably maturity of them all, singing fantastically at 19, and his moving voice of indescribable beauty is a strong point, but he
    sang fewer and fewer roles as the years went by, although always singing lieder excellently. I guess it’s like this:

    3. Wunderlich
    4. Bjoerling
    5. Di Stefano
    6. Tauber
    7. Thill
    8. Lemeshev
    9. King
    10. Domingo
    11. Kraus
    12. Peerce
    13. Pavarotti
    14. Gedda
    15. Tucker
    16. Araiza
    17. Schipa
    18. Heppner
    19. Schiotz
    20. Corelli

  14. Jussi Swedensen

    Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) Recording with help by computers.

    Jussi Bjoerling was the greatest tenor

  15. JSmith

    No one sings the italian opera songs like the Italians. Just like nobody builds Ferraris like the Italians. No one beats Pavarotti in his prime for musicality and power. Jussi who?

  16. dannydog

    J smith Esq. if you have never heard of Jussi Bjoerling, it would suggest your knowledge of opera is extremely limited.
    Therefore your comments are irrelevant.

  17. Mark Scheepers

    95% of all the singers discussed here are dead, what about those living or currently singing.
    All the singers discussed here had their unique qualities but at the end it is the voices that appeal the most to the listerner that matters. Personally I treasure the voices of Caruso, Corelli, Pavarotti, Taglivini, Lauri-Volpi, Jussi & Bergonzi with no real ordered list as I like each for different vocal content and the unique interpretation of piece being song.
    A couple of “living” opera voices I enjoy are Johan Botha, Tito Beltran, Deon van der Walt, Rolando Villazon.

  18. dub

    Personally i think this version of Bjoerling sining Nessun dorma is much better http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtnpMDYeZDo
    Perhaps you could post this one instead ?

    As for who was the best, i think it is impossible to say, it depends on how you listen, what you listen for and also what aspect of singing you consider most important.
    I think it is important to understand that although people are listening to the same thing, it is unlikely that they will have the same experience…..

  19. m.whitbrook

    yr talking like a pratt id put the great tenor guiseppe de stefano before pav and domingo,if you heard pav say to his dad quoting dad ive heard another singer by gigli..and bjorling is ccrap as well

  20. Nurten Anderson

    Jussi Björling is the best tenor ever. I have never heard a so powerful and beautiful voice ever! When he sings Nessun Dorma its no one of all tenors in this world how can sing this song so powerful that he thus. He was a king. And still are!!!

  21. Ken Stuart

    I am a tenor.

    The name you see is not my stage name.

    I agree with the poster who says we should honour these esteemed singers, but also support our local, and living present-day artists.

    Consider that Ben Heppner, only a short time before being “discovered” at the metropolitan opera auditions, was about to abandon opera and sell aluminum siding for a living. Those who attended his concerts before this “discovery” were treated to excellent, but uncelebrated singing.

    There are many fine artists today who will remain unknown, and yet who are the equal of anyone you may care to mention. I know this because I have heard them, and sung with them, live and onstage. These are work-a-day artists who have not managed to capture the mass-medias’s attention nor a recording contract. Recordings and press clippings do not necessarily define greatness, and live performance is the state of the art.

    As a singer, I admire all artists, and those mentioned here are no doubt among the best, although my own philosophy is that if I have not heard them sing live, then I have never really heard them perform and have no basis to judge their work. Recordings can be very deceptive, even for a trained listener.

    The finest tenor voice I ever heard live was Franco Bonisolli. The finest voice I ever heard live was a local house soprano in the Berlin State Opera, and I cannot remember her name just now. Fine voices ring in the moment, and then ring in our memory…. but the main value in music is in the moment.

    Attend live music and be part of those moments.

    The level of training of modern singers is tremendous. There are great artists among us now. And yes, I love Lanza, Corelli, Gigli, Schipa, etc recordings too…..would that I had heard them live.

  22. MiserableOldFart

    Lanza never sang opera. He had an operatic voice, no doubt, but it’s unfair to compare him to real opera singers, imho.

  23. Kristoffer

    Dear posters and opera lovers,

    First of all I would like to thank you for your posts, it’s extremely interesting for me to read your reflections and thoughts about these different tenors. I’m a Danish amateur lover of opera and nowhere near most of you in knowledge and experience, I guess I could be considered as a pop-listener as I only go the opera a couple of times a year and mainly listen to recordings of opera. Anyway I’m very interested in knowing more about the differences of the tenor voices and since I was a child, I’ve been very touched by Pavarotti’s clear and unspoiled timbre. In my humble opinion I think he surpasses most of the tenors of his generation – for example Domingo who in my opinion uses too much vibrato which spoils the clarity of the voice.
    I would like to ask if any of you could comment a bit on Pavarotti’s voice, is it just my untrained ear or did he have a clarity that very few tenors have had?
    I just recently discovered Paoli that in my opinion have some of the same unspoiled poetic timbre as Pavarotti, am I the only one who thinks that?

    Thanks a lot!
    -Kristoffer

  24. Ysabeau Terazawa

    I shall try to keep my comments as UNsubjective as possible. Although Giuseppe di Stefano’s operatic career was short lived I do feel that he should been accorded a place in your list of preferred tenors. Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras had nothing but kind words, praise and respect for di Stefano. I do not wish to go into the whys and wherefores of the decline di Stefano’s voice, so I shall just say that he and other post World WarII tenors provide great listening pleasure for me and my family.

  25. Richard Platte

    My brother Robert Platte was, I believe, the greatest unknown classical tenor who ever lived. He studied voice under Professor Manzo (sp?) at EWU. He thought he could sing the great arias in concerts without joining an opera company. He moved to California for a few months, but there was no interest. Instead, he raised a family in Spokane, WA. To me, the aria that best distinguishes the great tenors is “Nessun Dorma”, and I much prefer “dramatic”, rather than “lyric” or “spinto” tenors, such that in my opinion, Mario Delmonico and Franco Corelli were the best. On the other hand, Robert enjoyed hearing Jussi Bjorling sing the great arias. Once, when a friend of mine said that Bjorling was the greatest tenor of the 20th Century, Robert made a CD for me (and my friend) that included Bjorling’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma”, and then Robert’s. The comparison was a shock, and I came to the conclusion that Robert could/should have attained the same fame and appreciation. If you are interested in hearing Robert’s voice, please e-mail me. I can either try to send you Robert’s version of “Nessun Dorma” to you electronically, or I’ll mail a CD to you (at no charge to you). Let me know if you’re interested.

  26. G.Bearman

    I heard Gigli and his daughter Rina at Covent Gdn in the 50′s not at his best, However from his recordings for me he is the BEST tenor ever with the most beautiful voice as a lyric tenor no other comes close.

  27. Ted Kopec

    I am at best a simple amateur when it comes to discerning the technical differences between different tenors. I have been brought up on opera from the time I was small and soon came to appreciate the beauty of operatic music. Regardless of the type of music, I suggest to all who have provided comments here, that what individuals like can be a very subjective opinion. My method of choosing the best tenor is to listen to how different tenors sing the same aria, and then choose. I am convinced there will never be a correct answer to the question of who is the best tenor. The reality is that some operas suit certain tenors better. Franco Corelli has no peers when performing Andrea Chenier. Domingo’s performance of Tosca is tough to beat. Bjoerling’s version of Carmen is like a dose of heaven. The great range of operas sung by Pavarotti puts him right up there. What about singers of more than 75 years ago or more ? We do not have any really good recordings of their talents. As a society, we often ask the question, who is the best at what they do or have done. This may provide a lively discussion, but is a question that can never be answered to the world’s satisfaction.

  28. Michel D St-Laurent

    All the tenor are very well. However, I heard many greatest voice. But Lanza ws absolutly fantastic. The most and the greatest romantic voiceof his century. It’s not opinion but reality. Dans de nombreux blogs des professionnels disent que sa voix hors disque était d’une richesse et d’une puissance incomparable. Et si il aurait eu les techniques les techniques d’enrégistrements que l’on a en2013, oh lalallaa, plusieurs auraient bien des croutes à manger comme disait mon père .Que l’on soit d’accord ou pas, aucune importance. Ce qui est, EST. Je rend aussi hommage aussi à Corelli et stephano. qui s’entendaient très bien avec Lanza. Ils chantaient ensemble dans des evolées spectaculaires. Pour les chansons pops aucun ténor n’approchait Lanza. Heureusement également que Pavarotti a compris que les concerrts lui rendait plus justice que de changer a plein poumon dans des programmes d’opéras qui ne l’auraient pas fait connaître. Lanza, enrageait les purs et durs ,mais $$$$$$$ étaient plus intelligent pour Lanza que de trafailler d’arrache pieds pour des opéras complets alors que ses concerts étaient de beaucoup plus rentables que des programmes d’opéra.

  29. Ansie VdMerwe

    I cannot help to compare every tenor with Mario Lanza. Mario Lanza’s strenth, phrasing, the abbility to easily reach the high notes and low notes, the warm timber of his voice and the smile and passion in his voice make him the tenor of the 20th century! What a loss, so young!

  30. Jack

    I think Bjorling takes the cake for best tenor. But comparing him to Pavarotti is sorta comparing apples to oranges. Bjorling was a spinto tenor while pavartotti was a full lyric tenor. I also would like to add James McCracken, Guiseppi Giacomini, and John Vickers to the conversation. I like each of their voices but they are not on par with Bjorling.

  31. Mary Kay

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