Edmund Barham: Stylish dramatic tenor

Saturday 10 May 2008 00:00

British dramatic tenors do not exactly grow on trees. If Edmund Barham had been as good an actor as he was a singer, he would have been a genuine operatic star of the first magnitude. As it was, he progressed in 15 years from Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and Almaviva in The Barber of Seville with Opera for All, to such Verdi roles as Don Alvaro in The Force of Destiny for English National Opera; he even sang Otello, though not, unfortunately, in London. He had a fine ringing voice with splendid top notes, superb English diction and stylish phrasing.

Barham was born in London in 1952. He studied at Trinity College of Music and then at the London Opera Centre in the old Troxy cinema down the Commercial Road in the East End. While there he sang Toby in Offenbach's Robinson Crusoe, a couple of small parts in Gluck's Alceste and the Male Chorus in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia. In 1980 he was engaged by the opera house in Wuppertal, where his roles included Lionel in Martha, Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, and the title role in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

In 1984 Barham moved to Munich, to the Theater am Gartnerplatz, where he sang Lionel again and the Marquis of Chateauneuf in Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann. Then in 1985 he made his English National Opera début at the London Coliseum as Jenik in Smetana's The Bartered Bride. This was followed by Turiddu, Narraboth in Strauss's Salome, Pinkerton in Madam Butterfly and Cavaradossi in Tosca, all extremely well sung, but without a great deal of dramatic involvement. In 1988 the tenor sang with Opera North as Borix in Janácek's Katya Kabanova and Don José in Carmen.

Back at the Coliseum Barham sang his first Verdi role with the company, Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, which gave a foretaste of the glories soon to come. He also scored a personal success as Vakula the Smith in Rimsky-Korsakov's Christmas Eve, a role in which his somewhat awkward stage presence was a positive advantage, as a Russian peasant begging a favour of the Tsarina. In 1989 he went to Lucerne to sing Maurizio in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur. Returning to Opera North he sang Grigori/Dimitry in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov.

For the next three years it was Verdi all the way. In 1990 Barham sang Alfredo in La traviata and Macduff in Macbeth for ENO; the latter was toured to Moscow and Leningrad. Next he sang Foresto in Attila for Opera North, which took the production to Rotterdam, where he sang his first Otello in Lucerne. He encompassed the music with impressive ease, but received poorish marks for his acting. In 1992 ENO staged two Verdian blockbusters, Don Carlos and The Force of Destiny; both were major successes. Barham sang the difficult role of Carlos with surprising delicacy and for once was wholly involved in the drama. Alvaro suited him even better vocally, and was magnificently sung.

In 1993, after a splendid Enzo in Ponchielli's La Gioconda for Opera North, Barham headed for Australia, to sing his second Otello in Melbourne. This time, secure in the knowledge that vocally the part held no terrors for him, he sang it with much more dramatic commitment. The following year he sang Calaf in Turandot for Welsh National Opera, repeating the role at ENO in 1995. Back in Australia he sang Cavaradossi in Brisbane, followed by his third and finest Otello. For Opera North in 1997 he took on another Verdi role – his ninth – Radames in Aida.

Though already ill with kidney failure and on dialysis, Barham continued to sing for a while. Verdi role number 10 was Arrigo in Les Vêpres siciliennes, in a concert performance given by the Chelsea Opera group in the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1999; the 11th and last was Oronte in I Lombardi, also a Chelsea Opera Group concert performance in 2001. He was in excellent voice for both.

Elizabeth Forbes

Edmund Barham, singer: born London 22 March 1952; married (one son); died London 27 April 2008.

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