'WE baritones, when we start out,' wrote Geraint Evans in his autobiography, A Knight at the Opera, 'always aspire to sing Scarpia, or Rigoletto, or Escamillo - the big roles.' Although Evans did sing those roles, they were not among his finest interpretations. Of the 60 or so principal parts that he performed, many of the most successful, such as Mozart's Figaro, Papageno and Leporello, Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Dr Dulcamara, Wagner's Beckmesser or Verdi's Falstaff, were comic; his genius was for comedy, in the widest sense of the word, and it was a genius recognised not only in Britain, but also in the opera houses of Europe and America, at a time when British singers were less well-known abroad than they are now.
Born at Cilfynydd, South Wales, in 1922, Geraint Evans started work at the age of 14 as errand-boy for a ladies' outfitter in the nearby town of Pontypridd. He took singing lessons in Cardiff on his afternoons off, sang with the Bethel Chapel choir and appeared in Lilac Time with the local dramatic society. He had graduated to window-dresser when war broke out and he joined the RAF as a radio mechanic, serving in France, Belgium and Germany. After hostilities had ceased he was transferred to British Forces Network in Hamburg, where he studied with the bass Theo Herrmann. Demobilised in 1947, he worked for a year at the Guildhall School of Music, and was then invited to join the recently formed Covent Garden Opera Company.
Evans made his debut in 1948 as the Nightwatchman in Die Meistersinger. During that first season he also sang a variety of Priests, Police Officers and Courtiers, before tackling his first major role, Schaunard in La Boheme. Next came a part which he sang several hundred times during his career: Figaro in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Though Evans's interpretation of this role naturally varied superficially in the many different productions of the opera in which he sang, his basic view of the character altered very little over the years. His Figaro was a born revolutionary, whose hostility towards the Count was barely disguised by a thin veneer of the politeness owed by a servant to his master. At a later date he switched roles temporarily to the Count, but soon returned to Figaro, which he only relinquished when he felt he had begun to look too old for the part.
Meanwhile, at Covent Garden he continued to sing minor roles such as the Second Soldier in Salome or the Sacristan in Tosca. He also took part in several world premieres, creating Mr Flint, the sailing master, in Britten's Billy Budd (1951), Lord Mountjoy in Gloriana (1953) and Antenor, the Trojan Captain of Spears in Walton's Troilus and Cressida (1954).
Evans first sang at Glyndebourne in 1950, making his debut as Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte. He appeared there regularly for over a decade, singing Masetto and then Leporello in Don Giovanni, Papageno in The Magic Flute and his first Falstaff, one of the milestones of his career. Verdi's Sir John, in his interpretation, was no elderly has-been, but a robust, genial, middle-aged fellow still capable of appreciating the two chief pleasures of life - wine and women. Although Shakespearean in style, it was a very Italian conception of the part and again Evans changed only outward inessentials in later productions.
In 1959 he began a 24-year association with San Francisco Opera, singing Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger. He had already sung the role, which was to number among his finest, at Covent Garden, but Wagner's Town Clerk was a character who continued to grow in Evans's imagination. As in the case of Falstaff, he made no attempt to win the audience's sympathy; he presented a sour, disagreeable man who thoroughly deserved the ridicule that was heaped upon him, but the singer's comic talents were such that he could invest this petty official with the ability to cause gales of helpless laughter. In San Francisco he made his first attack on the protagonist of Berg's Wozzeck, the most moving of all the tragic roles in his repertory and one which he repeated at Covent Garden and in Salzburg. He also sang the marriage-broker Kecal in The Bartered Bride, Gianni Schicchi and Bottom the Weaver in the American premiere of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Bottom, another Shakespearean role, was possibly the funniest among his gallery of lovable rogues; his wide-eyed wonder as he narrated Bottom's Dream, the gusto with which he played Pyramus in the Mechanicals' entertainment, are quite unforgettable.
In 1961 he began an equally fruitful connection with the Chicago Lyric Opera, by creating Lemuel in the premiere of Giannini's The Harvest. He also sang Claggart, the Master-at-Arms in Billy Budd, one of the few really villainous characters in his repertory, for the first time in Chicago. He sang at La Scala, Milan, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Metropolitan, New York, and the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, where he sang his first Don Pasquale. This was one opera in which he quite shamelessly sought for sympathy, playing Pasquale as a lovable but foolish old man.
Back home at Covent Garden he continued adding roles to his repertory: both Balstrode and Ned Keene in Peter Grimes, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, the Marquis of Posa in Don Carlos, Amonasro in Aida, Tonio in Pagliacci, the four villains in Les Contes d'Hoffman, Fra Melitone in La forza del destino, Don Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte and Dr Bartolo in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Asked if he would like to sing the title-role of Don Giovanni, he tried it out in Dublin, but decided that he preferred Leporello, always one of his most succesful characterisations, particularly in partnership with Tito Gobbi's Don Giovanni.
With the Welsh National Opera he sang several of his best-loved roles, including Falstaff and Bottom, and created Trader Case in Hoddinott's The Beach at Falesa (1974). A fine Handel singer, he took the title-role of Saul at Sadler's Wells for the Handel Opera Society, while his concert repertory included Mendelssohn's Eliah. Among his last new stage roles was Baron Prus in The Makropoulos Case, which he sang at San Francisco in 1976. He produced several operas, gave master-classes and appeared frequently on television. Appointed CBE in 1959, he was made a Knight Bachelor in 1969. He was also the recipient of many honorary degrees and fellowships.
Evans's farewell performance took place at Covent Garden in 1984, when he sang Dr Dulcamara in L'elisir d'amore, one of the most engaging and flamboyant of his buffo roles. As with his Figaro, his Leporello, his Falstaff, his Beckmesser, his Wozzeck, as with all his roles during the past 36 years, the character of the charlatan Doctor was drawn with enormous care for detail, both vocal and dramatic, while at the same time it was presented complete and in the round. That, perhaps, was the greatest strength of Geraint Evans as an opera-singer, his ability to bring such disparate people as quack doctors and insubordinate servants, amorous knights and pedantic town clerks, even murderous soldiers of limited intelligence, so vividly to life.
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