One of the Bolshoi’s star tenors of the mid-20th century, Lemeshev combined an extraordinary youthful-sounding voice – even late in his career – with a level of characterisation unmatched by most of his contemporaries.
Two remarkable Russian tenors came to dominate the Soviet stage in the 1930s and 1940s. Sergey Lemeshev and Ivan Kozlovsky, born only two years apart, divided their fans into rival groups of lemeshistki and kozlovityanki. Both possessed high lyric voices of great distinction, forward placement and impeccable diction, though it was Lemeshev who was blessed with the matinee idol looks and who cut the greater dash as the Duke in Rigoletto. He also just had the romantic edge over his rival in his signature role, the poet Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a part he sang over 500 times; there is touching film footage of the two men sharing a specially reworded version of the Act I aria as a birthday tribute to Chekhov’s widow, Olga Knipper, and both tenors can be compared on screen in Lensky’s celebrated lament. Lemeshev’s interpretation in the recording of the complete opera, made in 1956, shows the voice still remarkably youthful and fresh, and he sang it for the last time at the age of 70. Good taste and impeccable musicianship mark out two cameo roles in Rimsky-Korsakov operas, the Indian Guest in Sadko and Tsar Berendey in The Snow Maiden.
In his own words: ‘I haven’t sung Alfredo for years. But I want desperately to perform it again, if only once…’ (Lemeshev aged 63).
Greatest recording: (DVD) Russian Opera at the Bolshoi – The Vintage Years Warner 5050467-4772-2