Singers, on Disc and on the Page

[We welcome Dan Davis to La Folia. Our friend of long standing writes on music and audio for numerous publications, including Fi, Pulse, and The Abso!ute Sound. If luck holds, we’ll be hearing more from the fellow. –Ed.]

Dan Davis

[June 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:2.]

Like pornography, singers’ biographies are a literary genre that appeal to hard-core devotees. Those who thrill to great voices find it hard to resist the temptation to plunge into the quicksand of turgid prose, gushing gossip, and uncritical hero-worship. Such hardy souls will welcome a new series from Baskerville Press called Great Voices, the first two volumes of which are devoted to Titta Ruffo, arguably the greatest baritone of the century, and Renata Tebaldi, arguably the finest Puccini soprano of the century. CDs enclosed with the books offer well-chosen examples of the artists’ recordings.

On a somewhat higher literary level is Jussi, a biography of Jussi Björling co-authored by the great tenor’s widow and Andrew Farkas. No CD is enclosed but at least there’s an attempt to give a rounded portrait of the man, warts and all. Björling’s life was a succession of stage triumphs punctuated by disastrous drinking bouts, and if the authors pull their punches a bit, at least they do confront the man’s character flaws.

Still, Jussi does share with the Ruffo and Tebaldi books typical failings of the genre. It’s strict chronological organization makes such issues as Björling’s alcoholism and his tortured relations with the Metropolitan Opera in the Rudolf Bing era hard to follow, while the constant references to the Björling’s happy family life make me think the lady doth protest too much. But such failings are less damaging than Ruffo’s rococo writing style, or Casanova’s paean to Tebaldi, which is a formless, campy fan letter for preliterates.

In all three books, our stars march from triumph to triumph. Ruffo seems to have left his audiences ripe for admission to mental institutions: “I created a delirium” or similar wording appears often. Elsewhere, he modestly opines that “my success reached exceptional heights,” and “my success was, without exaggerating, tremendous.” But then, modesty was never in a star’s job description. Nor of a fan’s, so Casanova’s Tebaldi endures 45-minute ovations, audiences wild with joy, and the like. Björling too, enjoys immoderate adulation from the masses, but that’s easier to take than the testimonials that pop up throughout the book — it seems that whenever another singer is mentioned, its primarily to supply yet another quote about what a wonderful colleague Jussi was.

Settling old scores is another feature of the genre. So it’s payback time for Nellie Melba, who cost the young Ruffo his chance to sing Rigoletto at Covent Garden, saying: “He’s too young to be my father.” Years later, he gleefully tells us, he blackballed the aging prima donna, saying, “She’s too old to be my daughter.” What goes around comes around! For her part, Casanova dumps on Callas and breathlessly tells of Elsa Maxwell’s traitorous defection to the Callas camp. And Mrs Björling sinks the knife deep into Sir George Solti and Rudolf Bing, among others.

She also bravely tries to defuse the commonly held notion that Björling was lazy, but examination of the Chronology, which lists all his known appearances, suggests that the defense applies only to his Swedish years; by the time he reached international stardom he was reluctant to add more than a handful of new works to his repertory or to relearn many of those he had sung in Swedish translation.

Ruffo’s factual errors are corrected in extensive notes by Giorgio Gualerzi and the singer’s son, Ruffo Titta, Jr. (the elder Ruffo transposed his names for the stage), who also contributes an interesting Epilogue on the singer’s anti-Fascism, which didn’t endear him to Mussolini’s gang.

Casanova’s gaffs include having Tebaldi sing at the White House for President Kennedy in 1960 when Eisenhower was still President and, more serious, virtually ignoring Tebaldi’s vocal troubles. The book’s CD is wisely weighted to 1950s recordings since Tebaldi’s lustrous soprano was fraying at the edges by the mid-sixties. Her last full operatic season was in 1970, when she was still on the sunny side of 50. The largely self-taught Ruffo lasted little longer, perhaps because of his fondness for loud singing, a typical case of “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Flawed as they are, all three books will interest vocal buffs for one reason or another. Jussi is fascinating in its depiction of a youngster growing up in provincial Sweden, making his stage debut at age five, and breaking up audiences at age eight with his rendition of “Give Me Angel Wings.” Some will enjoy the unique perspective provided by Mrs Björling, herself a modestly talented opera singer. But too often the book veers perilously close to a “my life with Jussi” memoir, complete with fond recollections of shopping trips and expensive gifts.

Fortunately, anyone foolish enough to doubt her claims that Björling was one of the great singers of the century can hear them validated in numerous CD compilations of his art. His early Swedish recordings reveal a lyric tenor of the utmost sweetness tinged with a mournful sadness lit by shafts of light to illuminate the texts. That gift of varying tone quality to express the emotions of the music never left him, even as the voice gained weight and resonance in his later years. His singing was often criticized as overly “cool,” but he’s guilty only if “cool” means avoidance of interpolated sobs and grunts. If emotional timbre and honest, heartfelt singing that’s sensitive to the text are what you want from a singer, Björling fits the bill.

Several recent discs reveal his vocal glories, as well as amply testifying to his enduring appeal. One, of operatic and lieder selections recorded between 1938 and 1958, gives an excellent cross-section of his finest recordings. Aptly titled “Jussi Björling: The Desert Island Collection” (Legato Classics LCD 207-1), it opens with a version of Au Mont Ida from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” which is perfection itself — one of the greatest vocal records ever made. Another CD, “Jussi Björling: O Paradiso,” features operatic arias from the 1950s, and includes ensemble pieces with such stellar partners as Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren (RCA 09026-68429-2). Then there’s the grossly misnamed “3 Tenors of the Golden Age” (RCA 09026-68531-2). Why misnamed? Well, Björling was the pre-eminent tenor of the Silver Age; the Golden Age was the era of Caruso and Company. And while Björling was a throwback to that hallowed era, the other two tenors on the disc — the throaty Jan Peerce and the glitzy Mario Lanza — most assuredly are not. It’s an insult to Jussi’s memory to put them on the same disc. Still, if you disagree, there are seven Björling tracks to help educate you to great singing.

If one Björling disc isn’t enough — and it can’t be for lovers of great singing — EMI recently issued a four-disc collection, The Jussi Björling Edition: Studio Recordings 1930-1959 (EMI 66306). It tracks the career from the light lyric tenor of the fledgling, yet immediately compelling artist, to the weightier-voiced mature singer. Much of the material is familiar and even accessible elsewhere, but much is not that easy to find including the Scandinavian songs, gorgeous gems that should be far better known. EMI thoughtfully provides translations for them, but not for the operatic arias though some of those too, are sung in Swedish. Incidentally, in case you think a Verdi aria in Swedish sounds like an Ingmar Bergman film shot in a pizza parlor, the language is eminently suitable for singing without impairing the character of the original. Something about the liquid vowels, I suppose.

Ruffo’s book is interesting for the story of a young, uneducated iron worker endowed with a fabulous voice that carries him to world fame. While records can’t adequately convey the size of that voice — all commentators agree that it was a huge, hall-filling instrument — they can hint at its quality and the art with which it was used. The one-disc sampler enclosed with the book is a good starter; it contains some of his most famous recordings including the great Otello duets with Caruso. For those who want more, Pearl includes virtually everything Ruffo ever recorded in three slimline two-disc sets, well-transferred by Keith Hardwick (Pearl GEMM CDS 9212, 9213, 9214). These are essential for collectors of Golden era vocalists. The dim-sounding 1905 Pathes show the 28-year-old baritone already a commanding singer; the later ones, a vibrant artist.

Casanova’s contemptible goddess-worship also has redeeming features — many photos, a chronology of Tebaldi’s public appearances, and a CD focused on her early recordings proving that this was indeed the voice of an angel who deserves a real biography. Like Björling, Tebaldi was often condemned for being a “cool” singer. Perhaps she was in comparison to her great rival Callas, who could sing random pages from the phone book and make you cry. But Tebaldi, with her melting tones and luscious, creamy top, could wrench tears from a stone, too. If her studio recordings tend to be understated, no artist should ever be judged solely by such artificial products.

Fortunately, the CD era has brought a plethora of air checks of live performances which confirm the memories of those who saw her on stage that Tebaldi was an artist whose singing went right to the heart. Again, Legato Classics comes to the rescue. This small label specializes in live vocal recordings and while the sound quality is sometimes primitive (what do you expect from vintage radio airchecks?) it’s often pretty good, too. Devoted vocal fans seem impervious to sound quality, but the sonics on many of Legato’s Tebaldi offerings are adequate or better. Choice among them is her searing “Tosca,” a white-hot performance with Giuseppe Di Stefano and Ettore Bastianini in a live performance from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (Legato Classics LCD 209-2). From 1961, in studio-quality sound, comes an Andrea Chenier with Mario del Monaco that features her impassioned Maddalena (Legato Classics LCD 214-2). Legato also has two well-filled compilation discs of “live” Tebaldi, “Renata Tebaldi: Portrait of the Artist 1949-1958″ which covers her glory years (LCD 115-1) and “La Leggendaria Tebaldi: A Fortieth Anniversary Tribute,” released to honor her Met debut (LCD 183-1).

Another eminently worthy reissue label is VAI, whose catalogue of CD and video releases includes masses of material to make vocal buffs drool, including the recent “Renata Tebaldi: The Concert at Lewisohn Stadium 1966.” Nostalgia may have something to do with the way the words “Lewisohn Stadium” set me a-tingling since I spent many a youthful summer’s evening in its confines, my fifty cents admitting me to the summer precincts of the New York Philharmonic and sundry top-of-the-line guests such as Madame Tebaldi. Although she was past her prime in 1966, the concert finds her in excellent voice. Maybe because she was surrounded by several thousand die-hard Tebaldi fans; maybe because she hadn’t sung in six weeks and her voice was rested. But, as Bob Dole would say, whatever, she was in rare form that night and VAI has captured it well, abrupt track starts, noises, and all.

Björling, Ruffo and Tebaldi are among the century’s greatest singers and we’ve got the recordings to prove it. In the case of great singers, the ear supplies what the eye misses in these biographies.

 

Jussi by Anna-Lisa Björling and Andrew Farkas. 456 pages. Chronology. Amadeus Press, $39.95.

Ruffo: My Parabola by Titta Ruffo. 490 pages, photos, discography, chronology, CD included. Baskerville Press, $38.

Tebaldi: The Voice of an Angel by Carlamaria Casanova. 265 pages, photos, discography, chronology, CD included. Baskerville Press.