It would be an impossible task to say of any one person that he or she possessed, in their prime, the most beautiful voice in the world, but if such a thing were possible, I for one would put my money on the great Italian tenor Ferruccio Tagliavini. I will not even pretend to be objective about Tagliavini, such is my love of his voice, so brace yourself for an onslaught of hyperbole.
Born in 1913, he made his debut in 1938, at the age of 25, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème. He very quickly rose to prominence, and sang in all the major opera houses of Europe and the United States. His voice was a wonder; exceptionally beautiful and hailed by all, especially in the lighter repertoire in which he excelled. Within this repertoire he had few rivals, except of course the great Gigli, another prime candidate for the "most beautiful voice award," or perhaps Tito Schipa, a brilliant lyric tenor. This is one of those cases where a little bit of sound is worth many, many words. The following aria is real tenor warhorse, and you have doubtless heard it sung by many tenors, but I ask you to consider for a moment if you have ever heard it more beautifully sung:
It is simply wonderful. Every aspiring young lyric tenor should be made to listen to this. The legato is amazing—the music flows in one long stream from the beginning of the aria to the end. His mastery of swelling a note starting from a gentle piano is one of the great secrets of his vocal style, and it is one to which the Italians are particularly sensitive, and to which they always respond with enthusiasm.
The next selection is a real treasure. I had the misfortune, in my youth, to hear this aria for the first time sung by Mario del Monaco. Talk about a bull in a china shop! For those who are used to hearing "E la solita storia del pastore" sung by huge tenor voices determined to blow windows out of the theater, I daresay this could be a real eye-opener, primarily because it shows what this aria—one of the loveliest ever written—can sound like in the hands of a musical master who understands what "beautiful singing" is all about:
I do not believe that I have ever heard it done better, or more convincingly. He naturally refuses to sing the interpolated high B natural at the end which many tenors feel they have to do to get a big hand. It's an atrocious interpolation, and a sign of artistic and stylistic insensitivity on the part of singer who feels he "has to do it." He doesn't.
The thing about Tagliavini's kind of singing is that it does in fact carry. I heard him in concert back in the 70's, in New York, in a large hall filled with people. His Italian diction was excellent—as was Gigli's and Schipa's—and I could not only hear every word, but understand it. Even his dialect songs were understandable. Schipa once said that all you have to do is to get the words up to the lips, and if the sound is properly produced, they will fall off the lips right into the ears of the listeners. And he was right. Would that many singers today could learn this valuable lesson! A great deal was lost when verismo, with its attendant vulgarities, became the "tónica del momento." Really good dramatic tenors, like Giuseppe Giacomini, could manage it, and turn in exceptional performances in the theater, but few tenors, as I have pointed out recently, were in Giacomini's class as far as musicianship and absolute mastery of a tricky technique are concerned.
Here is Tagliavini in what may have been his signature role, Nemorino, singing the very famous and much loved aria "Una furtiva lagrima."
What can I possibly say? It is perfection. No one ever did it better. Take the three arias presented above, distill them into one session, intelligently commented upon, and you have the ultimate master class in tenor singing, which could be presented anywhere in the world.
I know that no one is perfect, and some balance is needed. I cannot think of any reasonable criticism that can be made of Tagliavini in his appropriate repertoire. Unfortunately, however, for reasons I do not know, he started, later in his career, to take on some bigger roles, and the inevitable happened—he strained and thickened his voice. Bel canto was in decline, as far as public popularity was concerned, and perhaps he was seduced by the rise of the spinto tenor and the dramatic tenor, and the great public acclaim laid upon them. If so, it is sad, because his voice, musicianship, and style all worked together to make his singing some of the most beautiful ever heard on the operatic stage.