A Björling Centenary Memorial at Opera på Skäret

SwedenSweden  Jussi Björling in Memoriam. Yana Kleyn and Sandra Lopez, soprano, Kristian Benedikt and Stuart Neill, tenor. The Opera på Skäret Orchestra, Bergslagens Musikdramatiska kör/Marcello Mottadelli and Erik Jakobsson at Opera på Skäret, Kopparberg, Sweden, 5.8.2011 (GF)

The 100th anniversary of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling has been duly celebrated, not only in Sweden but around Europe and the US as well. The summer festival at Opera på Skäret, besides their series of Carmen performances ( see review) also contributed with a gala concert in the acoustically superb wooden opera house, seating 800 listeners – and there were not many empty seats. Four international soloists – all of them also taking part in Carmen – with the chorus and orchestra of Opera på Skäret, gave a fine homage to the great tenor, who was born less than 100 kilometres from Skäret. Most of the programme was well known favourites but there were a couple of pieces that are less frequently heard in concert. As the compère, Alexander Niclasson, said, not all the music was from Jussi Björling’s repertoire, but some of it was from works that he had planned to add, Otello, for instance, but never came to be due to his untimely death at the age of 49.

A springy overture to Le nozze di Figaro, opened the concert; well played but as in the Carmen performance I saw the relatively limited number of strings meant that the wind forces were unduly prominent – or rather that the string sound seemed undernourished. The young Russian soprano Yana Kleyn, who made her international debut as Mimi in last year’s production of La bohème at Skäret, was the first soloist and she sang a finely nuanced, soft and innocent O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicchi. Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt came next with Werther’s Porquoi me reveiller, a role that is quite often allotted to a lyric tenor but the first Werther, back in 1892, was Ernest van Dyck, who was a noted dramatic singer, best known for his Wagner roles. Benedikt today sings Otello and his voice rang out with power and passion – but also some strain.

Sandra Lopez, excellent charismatic actress, presented a deeply felt Madama Butterfly, singing Un bel di vedremo inwardly, a private monologue not a public address. Her real-life partner Stuart Neill then rounded off the presentation of the soloists with a glorious Di quella pira, reaping ovations from the audience. More Il trovatore was served in the shape of the anvil chorus and considering the number of singers they produced a mighty sound.

Kleyn and Benedikt then returned for the beautiful love duet that ends the first act of Otello, and here the tenor showed his true mettle with heroic baritonal timbre. Yana Kleyn, who has yet to sing Desdemona on stage, impressed with some celestial pianissimo singing.

The Meditation from Thais with fine violin solo from Kristina Ebbersten was inspired choice of repertoire and I only wish she had played it from the stage, ant not from the pit. I know it should be played as she did it in a performance of the opera but in concert it is nice to see the soloist:  and in this case her tone would probably have carried out better.

The first part of the concert suitably ended with the final scene from La bohème. Rodolfo was Björling’s signature role. Stuart Neill sang Che gelida manina with true Italianate ring and warmth and scaled down his magnificent voice to a beautiful pianissimo for the final bars. Sandra Lopez then responded with total identification in Si, mi chiamano Mimi and then they joined in a glowing O soave fanciulla, where they walked out towards the end and the final phrases were sung off-stage with Neill not following Ms Lopez up to the high C but taking the lower option, as indicated in the score.

After the interval the audience was treated to two of Jussi Björling’s favourite songs. Kristian Benedikt sang Tonerna, stylishly and beautifully and then Stuart Neill got ovations for a glorious Till havs. Both singers delivered their songs in good Swedish, a feat in itself.

From this year’s production Yana Kleyn and Kristian Benedikt performed the Don José – Micaela duet from the first act, more inspired it seemed than at the premiere two weeks earlier. Ms Kleyn is a lovely Micaela and Mr Benedikt adjusted to her and scaled down his voice for a beautiful soft ending.

The intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana was a fine tribute to Jussi Björling, who often sang Turiddu in this opera.

One of the highlights then followed with Yana Kleyn’s sensitive Io son l’umile ancella from Adriana Lecouvreur. Her voice is not creamy in the Tebaldi or Kiri Te Kanawa mould but the slightly fluttery tone gives her readings a sense of vulnerability that is most affecting. Everybody today expects to hear Nessun dorma, and it fell to Kristian Benedikt’s lot to deliver a well balanced, unexaggerated reading with the ladies of the chorus standing in for the prescribed children’s chorus in the last stanza.

Three excerpts from Tosca with Sandra Lopez and Stuart Neill brought the concert almost to the end. The long duet from act I, excellently sung and acted, was followed by an intense Vissi d’arte from act II and then from act III E lucevan le stelle. I had heard them in those arias before, as well as the whole Bohème scene that ended part I, and I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. Fine clarinet solo in the tenor aria added to the enjoyment.

But this was not then end. The ubiquitous Va pensiero from Nabucco – not Il trovatore as the programme leaflet stated – remained and here the audience was asked to join in. Standing ovations from an enthusiastic audience lead to an encore with all four soloists and the chorus singing Libiamo from La traviata. The audience was in high spirits when they left this worthy celebration of Jussi Björling, who must have been satisfied in his Heaven.

Göran Forsling