Jussi Björling: He Sang With a Tear in His Voice
A film by Torbjörn Lindqvist. Kultur 4873, 77 mins., subtitled
The life of Jussi Björling (1911–60), Sweden's most famous and beloved tenor, has been well documented in the biography Jussi written by his widow Anna-Lisa, with Andrew Farkas. His art, as preserved on recordings, has also been scrupulously covered by Stephen Hastings in The Björling Sound. Now comes this Swedish documentary, which is modest in scope, its intimacy lending a more personal feel than a more extensive and ambitious study might have done.
Clocking in at just seventy-seven minutes, the film offers biographical information, interviews with family members and colleagues (most notably mezzo-soprano Kerstin Meyer and soprano Aase Nordmo Løvberg) and several musical selections by the tenor, either as background audio or with video. The source for the latter seems to be mostly VAI's Voice of Firestone series. Fans of the legendary tenor will surely want to own this video companion to the biography and study of his recordings; for those less familiar with his work, it may whet the appetite for more, but they should know that this is primarily biographical and anecdotal in nature, with a small helping of music. Björling's abundant studio and live performances of arias, songs and complete roles more than fill in the blanks.
Stories of young Jussi touring with his brothers and father in the Björling Quartet in Sweden (more than 900 concerts) and the U.S. (300 concerts); his nearly seeing Caruso at the Met in 1919 but opting instead for a silent Western; the discovery and nurturing of his remarkable tenor voice by Swedish baritone John Forsell — all these are told with great personal passion and charm by his children, and by Harald Henrysson, the former curator of the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge. Björling's well-known alcoholism is not glossed over but given sympathetic insight with the story of his alcoholic father extracting a death-bed promise from his four sons not to drink — a promise the disease did not allow Jussi to keep. Also revealed is his fathering of two illegitimate children — his son Rolf, a tenor possessing a voice of uncanny similarity to that of his father and, more recently acknowledged, a daughter who was raised by Björling's lawyer.
The film is well written and directed. Some might find, as I did, that reconstructed events, portrayed by actors in period costumes, do not gel so well with the rest of the footage, and occasionally English subtitles are blocked by embedded titles from the original Swedish version. But all in all, this is an endearing portrait of one of the very great singers, and each time his voice is used, goose bumps are guaranteed.
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