Jussi (Anglais) Relié – 1 septembre 1996
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Anna-Lisa Bjorling, who was married to Jussi for 25 years, was herself a fine soprano who often partnered her husband in concert. As of this writing she is still alive at 92. Although Anna-Lisa clearly loved Jussi very deeply, she is still capable of being objective about him when required. She is a wonderful writer, providing vivid portraits not only of Jussi, herself, and their children, but just about everybody they ever came into contact with, as well as of life in Sweden in general. After reading this book, I felt like Jussi and Anna-Lisa were old friends.
Bjorling had not only what was probably the most beautiful tenor voice to ever come out of a human throat, but also a nearly perfect technique, a superb sense of style, and the ability to truly stir the souls of his listeners. While he had a reputation for being a very poor stage actor, this was at least occasionally exaggerated. Although Bjorling died tragically young at the age of 49 of heart failure, he had a magnificent and very long career which lasted 45 years, 32 as a tenor. He is probably the only opera singer whose recording career (which began when he was 9!) lasted from acoustic to electric to LP to stereo recordings. He made his stage debut at 19 as Don Ottavio at the Royal Opera, Stockholm, after having studied first with his father, his principal singing teacher, and then at the Royal Opera School with the Royal Opera's director, baritone John Forsell. His career expanded to Europe and the rest of the world very quickly. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1938, and with the exception of the WWII years and several years in the 1950s due to fights with Rudolf Bing, he remained there until his death. He concentrated on about 10 or 15 Italian and French operatic roles, and was also an avid recitalist with several hundred songs in his `inventory'.
Unfortunately, Bjorling is nearly as famous in operatic circles for his alcoholism as for his glorious singing, and I think that is appalling. In fact, the one thing this book makes very clear is that although the disease was a tragedy for him personally and traumatic for his family, it had comparatively little effect on his actual career, at least outside Sweden. Working actually kept him from drinking. Anna-Lisa offers considerable proof that many of the stories about Jussi's drinking were exaggerations, gossip or outright lies, most tellingly in the true story of the cancellation of the `Un Ballo in Maschera' recording under Sir Georg Solti, which was a product of producer John Culshaw's malice. Nearly all his colleagues also defend him on this regard. As far as I'm concerned, the only people who have any right discussing Jussi's alcoholism are Anna-Lisa and his children, as they are the only ones who really had to deal with it. ....
Overall, Jussi comes across as a beautiful human being - simple, warmhearted and lovable, a wonderful husband and father, adored by almost everybody who worked with him or knew him. The book is full of stories about his kindness and generosity to colleagues. He was also an avid pike fisherman who loved westerns and was unbeatable at arm wrestling. He basically had only three serious flaws as a human being: impulsiveness that on occasion bordered on irrationality, stubbornness, and what Anna-Lisa calls, for lack of a better term, a deep inner restlessness - the inner demon that drove him to drink.
I only wish `Jussi' could have been longer. A year before it was published, I spoke with leading Bjorling authority Cantor Don Goldberg, one of the book's proofreaders. He told me that the first draft was 1100 pages. As the final copy is only 520 pages, I wonder what was cut besides the many laudatory comments from colleagues that were considered repetitive. I was surprised that there wasn't more information about Jussi's brothers once they reached adulthood, especially Gosta, who was so close to Jussi that they had an almost telepathic relationship. And while this book does full justice to such fundamental influences on Jussi's singing as his father, John Forsell (who emerges as quite a character!), and Tullio Voghera, I would have liked a bit more on Nils Grevilius, who conducted nearly every recording Jussi made before 1950. There is also virtually nothing about Hjordis Schymberg, the fine Swedish soprano who partnered Jussi over 100 times in Stockholm. More mention of his recordings besides the complete opera sets would have been welcome, although I am aware that his recordings are covered in the companion volume `A Jussi Bjorling Phonography'. Finally, while I am aware this would have added to the price of the book, there are so few color photos of Bjorling that I think they should have had one on the cover.
`Jussi' is essential reading for anyone with any interest in good music, let alone opera. It is the definitive biography of one of the most magnificent singers and human beings ever to appear on an opera or concert stage. If you haven't heard this man sing, remedy that immediately!
So it was a great pleasure to discover this excellent biography, which illuminates not only his life but also the opera world from the 20s through the 50s. His early life and training from his father are particularly interesting if you wonder how such a great talent was discovered and developed. (The only question in my mind not answered is the extent to which his children inherited the incredible musical talent that was in his family for generations; that they perform is mentioned but never elaborated on.) The book is well documented with quotes from his peers, and the authors do a splendid job of presenting the entire person with his strengths and weaknesses in a very objective way that holds the reader's interest from beginning to end.
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