Nicolai Ghiaurov, who has died at the age of 74, was a lyrical Bulgarian bass renowned for his performances of the title roles in Boris Godunov and Boito's Mefistofele, and the role of Mephistopheles also in Gounod's Faust. He was married to the soprano Mirella Freni.

His was not one of the deep rumbling basses some of the Russians have, but a fine mellow sound that enabled him to sing Don Basilio in The Barber of Seville and even Don Giovanni. He was a skilled actor and these dramatic parts suited him well. His vocal skill never left him even into old age, and though he had to ease up on showpieces he could still do many roles through the strength of his acting.

Born in Velingrad on 13th September 1929, his early musical training was principally in the clarinet, and he was studying drama as a career. In the Bulgarian army he was a clarinettist and chorus conductor when his voice was noticed. He studied first with Christo Brambarov then went to the Moscow Conservatoire.

It was actually as the rascally Don Basilio that he debuted, at Sofia in 1955. Subsequent debuts include: Moscow 1957 (Pimen in Boris Godunov), La Scala 1960 (Varlaam in Boris), Covent Garden 1962(?), Metropolitan New York 1965, and Salzburg 1965, where for the first time he sang the lead in Boris.

His final role was also Don Basilio, at Venice in January this year. He had two children by his marriage to the pianist Zlatina Mishakova, and later lived with his second wife Mirella Freni in Modena, where he died of a heart attack on 2nd June 2004.

As well as many recordings for Decca, he leaves a 1986 feature film compilation of arias and rehearsals, subtitled Tribute to a Great Basso.

To be updated tomorrow, once the newspapers come out with their obituaries: he seems to have taken them unawares.

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