Anthony Rolfe Johnson obituary

Mellifluous tenor outstanding in the Passions of Bach and operas of Britten

One of the most attractive and intelligent tenors from the 1970s onwards, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who has died aged 69, tackled a very wide repertoire. Its twin peaks were his Bach and his Britten. He was magisterial as the Evangelist in Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions, recording them both, and took on most of the operatic roles Britten wrote for Peter Pears, as well as most of his song cycles.

As a boy soprano, he made a record at HMV studios of Jesus Is My Joy. Although, as he related to me, he had a bad cold at the time, it is a delightful memento. Born in Tackley, Oxfordshire, he was encouraged by his parents, but with no thought of taking up singing as a career. Instead he took an agricultural degree and became a farm manager, singing hymns he had learned in church to his herd of cows.

Another member of the choral society in Crawley, West Sussex, a singing teacher, told him he was in the wrong job. He eventually decided to go to the Guildhall School of Music, London, for a four-year course, which included performances of two Britten operas. When he sang Acis in Handel's Acis and Galatea in Cambridge, he was on his way. He felt as if he had been asleep for 10 years, and had suddenly awakened.

He studied with Pears, and his breakthrough came when he sang Britten's Nocturne on Radio 3. He was already 29, but his silvery, mellifluous tenor was soon in demand. He began his operatic career in the last years of the English Opera Group, making his debut in 1973 with them as Vaudemont in Tchaikovsky's rarely heard Iolanta, a portrayal of sincere beauty. Britten's Albert Herring in 1974 was another endearing performance.

His Glyndebourne debut came as the conductor Stroh in Richard Strauss's Intermezzo, a tricky role he encompassed easily, and as Lensky in Eugene Onegin in 1974. However, he did not appear there again until much later as Peter Grimes, a role he recorded under Bernard Haitink.

Meanwhile he made his debut at English National Opera in 1978 as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, and returned there many times as guest artist, most notably as Monteverdi's Ulysses in 1989, and before that in 1984 as a fiery Essex in Britten's Gloriana. His Covent Garden debut came in 1988, when he was an appealing Jupiter in Handel's Semele.

One of his notable parts was Aschenbach in Britten's last opera, Death in Venice, which he first sang at the Geneva Opera in 1983 and then repeated for Scottish Opera. The role demonstrated his great gifts as a singing actor – he thought himself into the part, living it for six months before the Geneva performances, an approach typical of all his operatic work.

In 1991 he made his debut at the Metropolitan, New York, in Mozart's Idomeneo. He was a moving Tito in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, which he recorded with John Eliot Gardiner, who for years made the tenor his first choice in many recordings, including Idomeneo, which remain benchmarks of singing and interpretation.

Another notable part was Pelléas in Debussy's opera. However, Rolfe Johnson fared less well late in his career when he attempted heavier roles such as Florestan in Fidelio, where he tended to force his sweet, lyrical voice into dramatic realms for which he was unsuited. He was a fine recitalist, notably in Schubert. He had a disc to himself in Hyperion's complete recording of Schubert's songs: it is predictably searching. So are his recorded readings of the Evangelist, where text and music are perfectly aligned, not least due to his having mastered German.

Unfortunately, at about the turn of the century he started to suffer from Alzheimer's and had to give up his career, not long after being appointed director of the Britten-Pears School at Snape. Happily there is a wealth of recordings to remind us of his prime. He was appointed CBE in 1992.

Rolfe Johnson parted from his first wife because she had married a farmer and then found herself married to a singer. A second marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by his third wife, Elisabeth Jones Evans, by their son and two daughters, and by the two sons from his first marriage.

Barry Millington writes: The blossoming of Anthony Rolfe Johnson's career coincided with the rise of the period-instrument movement, and he was a supreme stylist, with one of the most appealing voices in the business. While his Evangelist was incomparable, the many roles he undertook in Handel oratorios and operas displayed a wider range of dramatic colouring.

His appearances at ENO in the 1980s and early 90s as Orfeo and Ulysses, in David Freeman's powerful contemporary updatings, drew from him impassioned, intelligent performances that probed the respective myths to searing effect. Latent in those performances was the potential for more heavy-duty roles – among them Peter Grimes and Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice – which he essayed with great success, bringing to bear his particular brand of lyrical sensitivity.

Though offered Rodolfo in La Bohème and tempted by Lohengrin, the farmer manqué was wise enough, for the most part, to plough the furrow for which he was naturally gifted: in Mozart, Handel and Britten, he combined his honeyed lyricism and dramatic address with a distinction that few singers of his generation could equal.

• Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor, born 5 November 1940; died 21 July 2010

• Alan Blyth died in 2007


Alan Blyth

The GuardianTramp

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