The mezzo-soprano Anne Howells, who has died aged 81, was much loved and admired by audiences and critics alike. It was doubtless her remarkable stage presence that inspired the then editor of Opera magazine, Rodney Milnes, reviewing her in the title role of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène for Scottish Opera in 1995, to describe her as “the Cleopatra of the lyric stage”. Referring to her opulent, warm tone, Milnes also admired her ability “to reduce an audience to helpless laughter with the barely perceptible flick of an eyebrow”.
The combination of those stage skills and a vocal delivery of the highest order (maturing over the years but seemingly never tiring) ensured her enduring popularity.
Her career began promisingly when she scored a considerable success in the leading female role of Erisbe in Günther Rennert’s Glyndebourne production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo in 1967. At the same time she understudied the role of a Rhinemaiden, Wellgunde, in Wagner’s Ring at the Royal Opera, which also cast her the following year as Flora in Luchino Visconti’s production of La Traviata, alongside Mirella Freni and Piero Cappuccilli.
As she herself wryly noted, however, her first major role at Covent Garden in 1969 was less auspicious. Declining James Lockhart’s invitation to try out the part of Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Welsh National Opera before essaying it at the Royal Opera – a decision she later regretted – she found herself somewhat intimidated by an experienced cast managing on only 10 days’ rehearsal, since it was a revival, and failed to distinguish herself.
Having bought a new coat with a big fur collar to make her exit from the stage door, she was somewhat dismayed to find she was greeted only by a cat sitting across the road.
She fared little better the following season with her Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro at the same house. The cast being left largely to their own devices, she attempted to imitate the gait of a young man in a way that was not generally deemed convincing.
Yet Mozart’s operas were to provide vehicles for some of her greatest successes. The role of Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte was one in which she excelled, taking it in productions (and multiple revivals) both at Covent Garden and all round the world – to the extent that she later claimed to be “terribly bored” with Dorabella, regarding it as a “thankless role”.
She once said that Idomeneo was her favourite Mozart opera, while of the non-Mozart operas, the title role in Monteverdi’s Il Coronazione di Poppea offered an ideal “combination of naturalistic acting and singing”.
She appears as a winning Annio in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s landmark film of La Clemenza di Tito, based on the director’s 1980 Salzburg production of the opera. Her recordings were not numerous but also included a DVD of her fine Octavian in John Schlesinger’s 1984 Rosenkavalier, conducted by Georg Solti.
Born in Southport, Merseyside, to Mona (nee Hewart) and Trevor Howells, Anne studied at the Royal Manchester (now Royal Northern) College of Music. After singing in the Glyndebourne chorus and a couple of Opera-for-All tours, she made her professional debut in 1966 as Flora with the WNO.
Between 1966 and 1989 she appeared in a number of productions at Glyndebourne, including Nicholas Maw’s Rising of the Moon (1970), in which she created the role of Cathleen, as well as the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos), Diana (Cavalli’s La Calisto), Clairon (Capriccio) and Baba the Turk (The Rake’s Progress), in which she deployed her masterly comic timing to great effect – as she did in such roles as Meg Page (Falstaff) and Despina (Così Fan Tutte).
She enjoyed considerable success abroad too, at Chicago Lyric Opera, the Metropolitan in New York, Salzburg, Geneva, Barcelona, Paris, Santa Fe and elsewhere.
A Mélisande she sang in 1982 at the Royal Opera was memorable for the night on which a power failure plunged both stage and pit into Stygian gloom, causing the house lights to come up at half-strength. She and Thomas Allen, as Pelléas – not to mention the orchestra and conductor, Silvio Varviso – garnered praise for the unruffled way they continued with the performance.
Despite disappointments both early in her career and again when she felt overlooked following the birth of her children, she harboured no undue bitterness or professional jealousies. On the contrary she was renowned for her ability to radiate a sense of fun and enjoyment in her work. She was an accomplished mimic, her gallery of subjects including such Royal Opera luminaries as David Webster, the organisation’s chief executive, Solti and her own teacher, Vera Rózsa.
She was married three times, first to the tenor Ryland Davies in 1966, and then to the bass Stafford Dean in 1981, those marriages ending in divorce. Her third husband, Peter Fyson, died in 2005. She is survived by Matthew and Laura, the two children from her second marriage.
• Anne Elizabeth Howells, mezzo-soprano, born 12 January 1941; died 18 May 2022