About this Recording
8.110701 - BJORLING, Jussi: Opera Arias (1936-1948)

Jussi Bjorling

Opera Arias



Born in 1911 in Store Tuna, Sweden, Jussi Bjorling was destined to a stage career. He studied voice with his singer-father from the age of five; and within a year his clear boy alto voice began to sing with The Bjorling Quartet, which was made up of Jussi, his two older brothers and his father. The group toured the United States in 1920 and 1921, and recordings made around that time tell us that the boys sang in unison, mostly folk-songs, and very prettily indeed. They disbanded in 1922, probably because it became clear that Jussi was no longer an alto but a blooming tenor, and he entered the Stockholm Conservatory in 1928. One of his teachers, a noted baritone named John Forsell, was also the General Manager of the Stockholm Royal Opera, and Jussi was hired to sing a comprimario role or two. His first major role was Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. He soon sang Almaviva in Rossini's II barbiere di Siviglia and Arnoldo in the same composer's William Tell, and for close to six more years he honed his craft, seldom singing outside Sweden.

In 1936 Jussi Bjorling launched his international career in a performance of Aida in Vienna with Gina Cigna and Kerstin Thorberg; he sang the role in Swedish. He sang in II trovatore at Covent Garden later that year (in Italian), and added Prague, Paris, Brussels, Dresden and Florence to his conquests soon after. He made his debut in America at a radio broadcast in Carnegie Hall in 1937 and began his United States stage career in Chicago as the Duke opposite Lawrence Tibbett's Rigoletto later that year.

On November 24th, 1938 Jussi Bjorling sang Rodolfo in La boheme at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and was praised for having a "tenor of ample tone and quality... with a B flat which rings and carries, and which has by no means reached the summit of its development." He was adored at the Met and eventually sang ten roles with the company: In addition to Rodolfo, there were the Duke, Riccardo in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Romeo in Gounod's opera, Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana, the title roles in Faust and Don Carlo and Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut. His frequent bouts of uncontrolled drinking eventually forced him to cancel a recording (and most assuredly helped lead to his early death at the age of 49 in 1960), but rarely did it get in the way of his performing. Early in 1960 he suffered a heart attack before singing Rodolfo at a Command Performance before Queen Elizabeth II; the show was delayed a half hour and Bjorling sang as scheduled.

Looking over his repertoire - and listening to the 23 selections on this CD - one is amazed at Bjorling's versatility. Most lyric tenors - and Bjorling was most assuredly a lyric tenor - would not dare sing Radames or Manrico, but Bjorling did, often and very successfully. In that respect he was an anomaly; his absolutely natural, lyric sound was unique, it was so perfectly focused and sat so comfortably on the breath that he could put substantial demands on it without losing any of its innate characteristics.

"The Swedish Caruso" was the nickname given to Jussi Bjorling, and, indeed, he was probably the best known - and greatest - non-Italian, "Italian" tenor in the world. His voice had all the potency, compass and relaxation of, say, Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano and Luciano Pavarotti, and it was certainly their equal in beauty, but its effect on the listener is very different. Pavarotti's voice gives off great heat with its light, sunny top notes; with Bjorling the light is cooler and tinged with a touch of sadness. He was far from a great actor but he always moved his audiences - the tear in his voice communicates instantly; it connotes tenderness, sweetness and sincerity. And the remarkable "ping" of his easy upper register is thrilling - even heroic. He means business. His singing was as natural as speech - there is such joy in his singing that it becomes an end in itself. Many years ago I sat beside a very old woman at the Metropolitan Opera and she reminisced about singers long gone. She spoke kindly of Gigli, di Stefano, Tucker, Martinelli, and her critical acumen was to be admired. But when I asked her about Bjorling, she could barely speak: "Every note of his went straight to my heart," she said through barely choked-back tears. "God must have wanted to listen to him alone in Heaven."

The arias on this CD were recorded over a twelve year period, from December of 1936, when Bjorling was 25, to September 1948, when he was 37. It is remarkable how little wear and tear there is on his voice, despite his singing heavy roles such as Radames (in Aida), Manrico (in II trovatore) and Cavaradossi (in Tosca). In fact, his voice changed very little up to the very end of his life - there is some darkening and a new richness in the lower register, but the top, including a ringing high C, remained intact.

The earliest arias here, from Aida [6], La boheme [20] and Tosca [21] present the young, shining voice in all its early radiance. Celeste Aida, coming just seconds after the opera's prelude, is all too often shouted by the still-warming-up tenor; Bjorling, with the exception of the almost-imposible soft, high B flat with which Verdi closes the aria, scrupulously adheres to the composer's markings. Here is a sensitive singer, responsive to the text and instantly comfortable and at one with the long, melodic line, and when the top notes ring out, they do so like a ray of sunshine. Rodolfo was one of Bjorling's great roles, one that fit him like a glove, and in Che gelida manina he actually does sound young, poetic and impetuous. As the painter / lover / almost-political-activist Mario Cavaradossi, Bjorling gives us a performance of Recondita armonia we would die for in the opera house -manly, ardent and entirely without mannerisms and unwelcome false emotion, and again, the climactic B flat is one for the books - spotless, perfectly attacked and easy. The only arguments one might have with these performances stem from the tenor's poor Italian pronunciation - his "g" in "goielli" in the Boheme aria, for instance, is pronounced like a "y," as it is in Swedish, and elsewhere he merely sounds mushy. But since this problem passed within a year or two, we need not focus too much attention on it. Despite small linguistic issues, Bjorling was the ideal "Italian" tenor.

Nemorino's Una furtiva lagrima [1] gives us all of Bjorling's sweetness - and the slight tear in the voice, the endless breath, the pure line, are a joy. Verdi's Duke (in Rigoletto - [2] and [3]) was a role he sang often -and very successfully -on stage, but here he seems oddly humourless in the first aria. La donna e mobile, on the other hand, is deliciously carefree, and the final run, culminating in a blazing high B, is out of this world. His Manrico is, by turns, loving and tender [4] and heroic [5] and those high Cs are stunning. Arias from La Gioconda and L' Africana ([7] and [8]) are simply great singing, and M' appari from Martha is so utterly complete, so warm and earnest, that there is no reason to ever hear another tenor sing it.

Bjorling was also at home in much of the French repertoire, as we can hear on tracks 10 to 14. The first two heroes are in love with the idea of love and here we get a spontanaiety of gesture and sincerity which is matchless among tenors. Faust's song to the purity of Marguerite's house is exquisitely phrased and sung with a sense of new wonderment; it seems almost unnecessary to speak of the singing itself, but when is the last time that high C was so perfectly sung, and taken, as written, at the end of a long breath? And as Romeo he is scarcely less effective, singing with a passion which is all the more effective because we know its tragic outcome. In Don Jose's Flower Song from Carmen there is a fine bit of desperation, as there should be -the voice trembles with longing -this character is in trouble! And perhaps the CD's most simply beautiful singing is from Massenet's Manon: Bjorling delivers Des Grieux's Reve as if he were in a true dream state, softly, with long lines and an almost hypnotic concentration, and in Ah! fuyez, douce image we find the character at the end of his emotional rope, singing full out, pleading, lost.

"Verismo" operas are characterized by their emotional straightforwardness ?the men and women who inhabit them are invariably in some sort of terrible distress, and we get them in moments of fervent truth (which is what the word "verismo" means). All too frequently tenors overdo these moments -sobbing, shouting, agonizing in a melodramatic fashion. Not so with Bjorling, as is evidenced in arias from Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Fedora, Manon Lescaut, and on through Boheme, Tosca and Turandot ([15]-[23]). In Cavalleria he first urgently and passionately serenades the married woman he is currently involved with, and he sings without the strain most other tenors find necessary to cope with Mascagni's high tessitura. Turiddu's farewell to his mother [16] is moving and reckless, as it should be. Bjorling's interpretation of Canio's famous aria from Pagliacci is enlightening in its lack of phony melodrama - there is no bitter laugh and the vocal line is never distorted, making the scene all the more poignant. In the arias from Fedora and Manon Lescaut we hear young men in love, and I doubt that Cavaradossi's farewell [22] has ever sounded more genuinely sad. And he closes with the last aria Puccini ever wrote - Nessun dorma in which the character, Calaf, as well as the tenor, Jussi Bjorling, end on a note of triumph.



Robert Levine


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