The summer traditionally is not a very interesting time for classical releases. The major labels save their big guns for the fall, when cooler temperatures seem to make people want to buy CDs. Nevertheless, BMG Classics hasn't been just resting warmly on its laurels, as these two releases show. They are part of a series called "Artists of the Century" – an unarguable moniker, but one that can be forgiven, given the intense enjoyment that artists the likes of Lanza and Björling can bring. (All are being sold as "twofers.")
It is not uncommon to bash American tenor Mario Lanza because he wasn't "really" an operatic tenor; he was too popular, he looked too good, and he made Hollywood movies! He appeared on the operatic stage exactly twice (as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly), and so he made his mark through media that reached far more people, even those who normally would have had nothing to do with opera singers. (His records are a plot element in "Heavenly Creatures," a wonderful film from New Zealand about the Parker-Hulme murder case.) Since his time, only Pavarotti has achieved the same level of popularity, and not even Pavarotti has conquered the motion picture screen.
Lanza's Ultimate Collection is comprised of 47 tracks that ably and amply represent his career. Classy pop ("Be My Love," "The Loveliest Night of the Year," "Because You're Mine") accounts for the bulk of the selections, and there are Neapolitan songs, arias from opera and operetta, and Broadway hits. Many of these come from his films for MGM. He sings them with an unbounded generosity of expression, and if he often over-emotes, or croons, or falls victim to less than the best of taste or stylistic aptitude, it is good to remember that modesty and discretion are not what made him a household name, and RCA Victor knew what it was doing, then as now. Once one stops denigrating Lanza in favor of "serious" opera singers (Björling, for example), one can appreciate his ringing voice, which bears comparison to Giuseppe di Stefano's, for example. Lanza could have competed with Björling and di Stefano; fate took him in other directions, however. Frankly, this collection is complete ear candy from front to back, and if the music and the interpretations sometimes make you grin, you can't help but be impressed with Lanza's animal magnetism and romantic persona. Some of the tracks have coarser sound than others, but there's nothing about the remasterings that made me wince.
Jussi Björling, ten years Lanza's senior, was born in Sweden in 1911. He was a major operatic star before he reached the age of 30, an accelerated rate of success that we no longer see among today's singers. He was a tenor's tenor, and his singing was faultless, except for his inability to master idiomatic French and Italian. He was equally at home in the French and Italian repertoires, however. His voice retained an agility and lightness that made him convincing in Faust and Massenet's Manon, but he had the heroic heft necessary to make him succeed in Aïda, Turandot, and Il Trovatore. His versatility is reminiscent of Plácido Domingo's; not even Domingo, however, can (or ever could) compete with Björling's honeyed sweetness, among his other distinctive vocal qualities.
The Björling recordings were made in the 1950 (as Lanza's brief career was at its height). Björling started making records in the 1920s (as part of his family's vocal quartet), and one cannot get a complete picture of his accomplishments unless one has heard some of his recordings from the 30s and 40s. This Ultimate Collection, however, presents him as an experienced artist in no danger of vocal deterioration. Between the two CDs, there are 32 tracks. Some (arias and scenes from Aïda, Manon Lescaut, Rigoletto, Cavalleria Rusticana, Tosca, and Turandot) are taken from his complete opera recordings. There are six selections from his Carnegie Hall concert of 1958, and a few other arias from here and there. Best of all, to my mind, is the series of duets that the tenor recorded with baritone Robert Merrill, who is sadly neglected today. There's never been a more stirring and emotional (yet masculine!) Pearl Fishers duet, and the Don Carlos scene also crackles with electricity.
I would go out on a limb to say that if one has only $15 to spend on an operatic collection, let it be this one. (There are guest appearances by Zinka Milanov, Licia Albanese, and Renata Tebaldi in the scenes from Tosca, Aïda, Manon Lescaut, and Turandot.) The sound is excellent throughout, even when it is monaural, and the helpings are generous!
Copyright © 1999, Raymond Tuttle