Lauritz Melchior was born a baritone and reinvented himself as the finest Heldentenor of the 20th century, setting standards for singing Wagner that have never been surpassed.
Melchior was born in Copenhagen in 1890 on the same day as Gigli. He made his debut in 1913 singing Silvio in Pagliacci, but on hearing the young baritone sing a high C in Il trovatore an American colleague declared him a tenor ‘with the lid on.’ And it’s the caramel colours in Melchior’s lower register that make his voice so distinctive, together with the stamina to sing Wagner’s major tenor roles without tiring.
In 1924 Melchior sang at the first post-war Bayreuth Festival and that same year triumphed in London as Siegmund in Die Walküre. It would be another five years before New York took him to its heart, but after singing Tristan at the Met he became the company’s Heldentenor of choice for almost every season until he chose ‘Lohengrin’s Farewell’ for his swansong in February 1950.
If power and stamina are the hallmarks of Melchior’s art, there is also delicacy in his phrasing and absolute sureness of tone which is never less than beautiful and always appropriately expressive. Has any Siegfried conveyed such wonder at an awakening Brünnhilde? Has any brother wooed his sister so ardently and with such desperation? On record Melchior is at his greatest as Siegmund to Lotte Lehmann’s heartouching Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre recorded in Vienna in 1935.
In his own words: ‘Regard your voice as capital in the bank. Sing on your interest and your voice will last.’
Greatest recording: Wagner Die Walküre (Acts 1 & 2), Bruno Walter (1935) EMI Great Recordings of the Century 6345 832