When I was born, the fairies told my mother that her son’s life will always be under the sign of the sun, and that fortune will smile on him in the second part of his existence. And so it was!
About him, Roberto Alagna said he was “the world’s greatest baritone”, and the press worldwide called him a “phenomenon” and “the king of baritones”. Nicolae Herlea was born on August 28, 1927 in Bucharest, where he trained at the Conservatoire of Music with Aurelius Costescu-Ducă, pursuing further studies at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome with Giorgio Favaretto. Aged 22, on April 14, 1950, he debuted as Silvio in Ruggiero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the National Opera in Bucharest, subsequently taking the position of first-baritone.
Such important international competitions as the ones in Prague (1954), Geneve (1955) and Verviers (1957) opened the way to international recognition: in 1960 Nicolae Herlea first performed in London, in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, alongside Teresa Berganza, and in 1964 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of Rodrigo in Don Carlo by Giuseppe Verdi. He would remain with the prestigious New York opera house for the following three years, working with the likes of Franco Corelli, Leonie Rysanek and Giorgio Tozzi. Of consequence were also his participation in the 1965 Salzburg Festival under Herbert von Karajan and his three seasons, beginning with 1966, at the Teatro alla Scala.
Throughout his career, Nicolae Herlea performed at the Prague National Theatre, Royal Opera House in London, Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Deutsche Oper Berlin as well as in Tokyo, Tel-Aviv, Cleveland, Detroit and Atlanta. He sang to great acclaim in Rossini’sThe Barber of Seville (performing the role of Figaro more than five hundred times), Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Verdi’s Don Carlo and Rigoletto, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Borodin’s Prince Igor and Puccini’s Tosca. The latter (Japan, 1975, alongside Montserrat Caballé and Giuseppe di Stefano), as well as Verdi’s Traviata directed by Maurice Béjart, were particularly successful. Nicolae Herlea worked with such renowned singers as Montserrat Caballé, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Giulietta Simionatto, James McCracken, Carlo Bergonzi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Nicolai Gedda and Ivan Petrov.
For music critic Anca Florea, Nicolae Herlea’s voice was “a true phenomenon, both brilliant and like dark velvet, spectacular in the higher register, mastering the phrasing and meaningful expressions such as required by the music”, adding that the celebrated director Jean-Luis Barrault “considered him, in the 1960s, the best Figaro ever”. Moreover, Nicolae Herlea’s unmistakable timbre was coupled with a natural, elegant stage manner, at home in the great opera roles as in Italian canzonettas.
“I led rather a tumultuous life, but everything passed like the wind, like a spring breeze – success, the theatre, it’s all a mirage. A balanced artist can see past these illusions, and they don’t touch him”, said Nicolae Herlea, the baritone with a substantial repertoire and memorable renditions. The esteemed artist died on February 24, 2014, in Frankfurt.