Nicolai Ghiaurov

Operatic bass with a rich-toned voice and larger-than-life personality

One of the finest bass singers of the second half of the 20th century, Nicolai Ghiaurov was born in Bulgaria but adopted Italy as his second country, both in his professional and personal lives. He excelled in the great bass roles of Mussorgsky and other Russian composers, but he also became a magnificent interpreter of the operas of Verdi.



Nicolai Ghiaurov, opera singer: born Velingrad, Bulgaria 13 September 1929; married first Zlatina Mishakova (one son, one daughter), second Mirella Freni; died Modena, Italy 2 June 2004.



One of the finest bass singers of the second half of the 20th century, Nicolai Ghiaurov was born in Bulgaria but adopted Italy as his second country, both in his professional and personal lives. He excelled in the great bass roles of Mussorgsky and other Russian composers, but he also became a magnificent interpreter of the operas of Verdi.

He was married to the Italian soprano Mirella Freni, who frequently appeared with him on stage in, for instance, Don Carlos, Simon Boccanegra and Gounod's Faust. Méphistophélès in Faust, which he had sung in Russian and Italian as well as French, was his most popular role, and one for which his rich-toned voice and larger-than-life personality were perfectly suited.

Born in Velingrad, Bulgaria, Ghiaurov was 20 when, after his military service, he entered the Sofia Conservatory. His professor, Cristo Brambarov, had been a well-known baritone singer and had a reputation as a very fine teacher. In 1950 the young Ghiaurov was awarded a state scholarship to study at the Moscow Conservatory, where he remained for five years. After winning an international singing competition in Paris, he was engaged by the Sofia Opera and made his début in 1955 as Don Basilio in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia. In 1956 he moved to the Bolshoi in Moscow, singing his first Méphistophélès - in Russian.

Ghiaurov sang the same role - in Italian this time - for his first appearance in Italy, at Bologna in 1958. Two years later he made his début at La Scala, Milan as Varlaam; the role of Boris was sung by his fellow Bulgarian Boris Christoff. During the next decade at La Scala he also sang Méphistophélès, the title roles of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Rossini's Mosè in Egitto, Créon in Cherubini's Medea and Philip II in Don Carlos, which was to become one of his very finest characterisations. In 1962 he made his Covent Garden début as the Padre Guardiano in La forza del destino, another very congenial role in his growing repertory of Verdi operas.

Ghiaurov made his American début in 1963 at Chicago, singing Méphistophélès, and his Metropolitan Opera début in 1965, again in Faust. The same year he appeared for the first time at the Salzburg Festival, singing his first Boris Godunov under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. Boris immediately became a rival to Méphistophélès as the singer's most popular role; he sang it in Chicago, at Covent Garden in 1977, at the Vienna State Opera, at La Scala, in San Francisco, at the Paris Opéra, in Barcelona and, in 1990, at the Metropolitan. His interpretation, less hysterical than that of Christoff, was extremely powerful, and very moving in the death scene.

Another of Ghiaurov's best Verdi roles was Jacopo Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, which he sang at La Scala in 1971, with the Scala company in Moscow in 1974 and in Paris in 1978, at the Met, in Tokyo and in Munich. It was one of the operas in which he and Freni sang together, and in which they were ideally suited. Another such opera was Faust, which they sang at Covent Garden in 1976, with tenor Stuart Burrows in the title role. All three principals were in superb voice, and the trio in Act V, " Anges purs! anges radieux!" can scarcely ever have rung out so magnificently.

Another French opera in which Ghiaurov scored a success was Massenet's Don Quichotte, which he sang at the Paris Opera in 1974 and at Chicago in 1981, adapting with great skill his strong voice and personality to Cervantes' gentle anti-hero.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Ghiaurov continued to sing at La Scala, in Vienna, at Salzburg and in the US. He acquired more Verdi roles, such as Silva in Ernani (which he sang in concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall); Banquo in Macbeth (in which he appeared on BBC television); Ramfis in Aida; and he sang the title role of Attila in Vienna.

He obtained a magnificent new Russian role in Prince Gremin in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which he sang in Barcelona in 1989, and in Bologna, with Freni as Tatiana, in 1991. He took up Rossini's Don Basilio, the role of his début, and sang it in Barcelona in 1991 and at the Teatro Malibran in Venice in January 2004. Ghiaurov made many recordings of most of his best roles, including Méphistophélès, Philip II, Fiesco and Boris, but he needed a stage performance for his characterisations to come alive.

Elizabeth Forbes

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