Now 80, Leontyne Price was the outstanding lyric-dramatic US soprano of her generation, with a uniquely recognisable timbre.
Arguably the possessor of the most sumptuously beautiful soprano voice of the recording era, Leontyne Price achieved international acclaim in a variety of lyric, lirico-spinto dramatic roles, although she is remembered for her Verdi and Puccini heroines, especially the title role of Aïda in which she made her debuts at Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera in 1958, and the following year at La Scala, Milan. Her last appearance on stage was in the same role at the New York Met in 1985. Her recorded legacy comprises her core repertoire of Aïda, Tosca, Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, all recorded twice, Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore, three times, and Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. Herbert von Karajan prized her as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Puccini’s title role of Tosca, the Trovatore Leonora, and chose her for his first recording of Bizet’s Carmen, a role she never sang on stage but to which her smokey, sultry tone brings a hot-house sensuality rarely achieved on disc. Price famously declared that she adored the sound of her own voice. In any other singer, this would have smacked of arrogance, but Price’s self-assessment was endorsed by critics, conductors and audiences worldwide. The glory of her voice was the gleaming upper register which sounds like the sun bursting out of the clouds as she ascended towards high C – the thrill of her rising phrases in Aïda’s ‘O patria mia’, Amelia’s scene and duet in Act II of Un ballo in maschera, or Leonora’s great expansive phrase, ‘Se tu dal ciel discendi’ in the nunnery scene of Il trovatore still have the power to send shivers down the spine when heard on disc. Price’s repertoire extended far beyond the Verdi and Puccini roles for which she was famed: in her early career she shone as Gershwin’s Bess – has there ever been a more gorgeous account of ‘Summertime’ than Price’s? – but she also sang Mme Lidoine in the US premiere of Dialogues des Carmelites, and Strauss’s Ariadne. Her close friendship with the composer Samuel Barber brought forth the Hermit Song and the female title role of his opera, Anthony and Cleopatra that opened the new Metropolitan Opera in 1966. Above all their names are linked in the glorious recording of Barber’s soprano scena Knoxville: Summer of 1915. It was written for Eleanor Steber, but Price’s version is matchless.
In her own words: ‘Once you get on stage, everything is right. I feel the most beautiful, complete, fulfilled.’
Greatest recording: Bizet: Carmen VPO/Karajan RCA 74321 39495-2 (3 discs) £22.99