About Nicolai Ghiaurov
Ghiaurov's career spanned both the great Russian roles--Boris Gudonov, Khan Konchak, Prince Gremin, Ivan Susanin, Kovanschy, and the great Italian and French roles--King Philip, the Devil in both Mefistofele and Faust, the Padre Guardiano in Forza, Attila , Fiesco, Silva, and Don Quichotte. While a genuine bass, he had a strong enough upper range that he was also a fine Don Giovanni, and could even manage the Toreador Song from Carmen with panache. Though most of the roles he sang were serious ones, he is also a noted performer of Don Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Colline in La Boheme, which has the one solemn aria in the last scene, and considerable clowning in the preceeding ones. He brought to these roles a rich and powerful voice, considerable acting ability, and a striking physique. His voice was at its prime during the late 1950s, '60s, and '70s, becoming rather dry by the 1980s, but he was still able to perform some of his roles very ably through the 1990s, leaving the more vocally strenuous ones and relying on a solid technique and his mastery of text and drama. As a singing actor, he avoided extra-musical effects such as sobbing or shouting, instead drawing characterizations from the music and shading nuances into the text.
His family was poor, but when he was a child, his parents encouraged him to sing. When his voice broke during adolescence, he continued to study music, learning to play clarinet, violin, and trombone on borrowed instruments, and he also studied drama, which at that time was his career choice. He was discovered as a singer while serving in the army (where he played clarinet and conducted the chorus), and studied with Christo Brambarov and then at the Moscow Conservatoire. He credits much of his vocal longevity to the fact that he never pushed his voice during those early years--in fact, during his first year of studies he worked on only one octave, doing only vocal exercises. Studying with Brambarov, he learned Italian style as well as Russian style, something of a rarity for Slavic singers at that time.
He made his debut as Don Basilio at the Sofia Opera in 1955 and sang Pimen (in Boris Godunov) at the Bolshoi in 1957. By 1958, he first sang in Italy, through in Faust rather than in an Italian opera. Three years later he made his Covent Garden debut, in 1960 made his La Scala debut as Varlaam in Boris, and in 1965 he first appeared at the Metropolitan. At the Salzburg Festival he sang the lead in Boris Godunov, for the first time, also in 1965. He appeared in many productions and roles at those opera houses, and was also a frequent performer at the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera (where he made his US debut), and many others.
Aside from opera, he frequently performed and recorded Russian songs. He is married to the Italian soprano Mirella Freni, and has participated in guiding her into her forays into the Russian repertoire, notably Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and Lisa in Pique Dame.
He left a wide recorded legacy. Some of the more outstanding include a recital recording on Arkadia (Arkadia 807.1) from 1961 that displays not only his voice but his acting abilities--in the aria "Madamina," from Don Giovanni he produces some of the sleaziest sounds in recorded opera! Decca released a Grandi Voci album devoted to him (Decca 448 248-2) that spans the width of his roles. In complete opera recordings, his Mefistofele (Decca 410 175-2) was recorded too late to capture the full bloom of his voice, but his characterization and dark humor is unforgettable. He made two major recordings of Boris Godunov, the first with von Karajan on Decca, the second with Tchakarov on Sony. The first is the most vocally expansive, the second, made two decades later, is perhaps more mature dramatically. ~ Ann Feeney