About fifty years ago, RCA Victor invited tenor Jussi Björling and baritone Robert Merrill into the studio to record a series of duets. That album's popularity has never faded, and it has been transferred to CD several times in the past twenty years. Many of the Björling/Merrill duets are repeated here, and while Vargas – the linchpin for each of these selections - and his friends can't quite live up that exalted standard, there's still much about this CD to enjoy.
The theme here is friendship, although perhaps "affinity" or "propinquity" might be a better word. (It's twisting the theme to include the Nemorino/Dulcamara duet from L'elisir d'amore, however.) All of the relationships depicted here are familial or otherwise chaste, so this is not an album of love duets, at least not in the traditional sense. The more one considers it, the more charming the theme of this CD becomes.
The least familiar item here – the trio from Rossini's Maometto II – is a real jewel. Three Christians – a father, his daughter, and his daughter's (mezzo-soprano) fiancé – await almost certain death at the hands of the Turks. What Rossini has written is not particularly tragic. Instead, it seems to show how adversity can bring out the best in people, and the Rossini's music is both refined and resigned, expressing the dignity of the three characters. Vargas, Lavarian, and Kasarova sing it beautifully.
Vargas excels in the bel canto territory. Rossini and Donizetti bring out the best in him. Don Carlo and Don Alvaro call for heavier voices, and I don't recommend that Vargas take on the complete roles at this time. He's more of a Tito Schipa than a Björling. His "friends" acquit themselves variably, but never less than well, with special kudos due to Kasarova and to Manuel Lanza, who sings Figaro to Vargas's Almaviva in the "All'idea di quel metallo" duet from The Barber of Seville.
Sutej's orchestral accompaniments are light and generally unobtrusive. Such a small-scaled and intimate Forza wouldn't work onstage, but "between friends" it is quite acceptable.
One might imagine that it took a long time to get this array of singers in and out of the recording sessions. Actually, Between Friends required only a week to record. I'd say it was a good week for everyone involved. This then, is not a CD to change your life, but I found it very comforting to listen to throughout a stressful day. Long live friendship!
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle