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Great Swedish Singers - Ragnar Ulfung (tenor)
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819–1880)
Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881)
1. Il était une fois (The legend of Kleinzach) [5:09]
2. Malheureux, tu ne comprends (Hoffmann-Giulietta a.3) [6:52]
Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Manon (1884)
3. En fermant les yeux (Des Grieux’s dream) [3:28]
Georges BIZET (1838–1875)
Carmen (1875)
4. La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Don José’s flower song) [3:35]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824–1884)
The Bartered Bride (1866)
5. I know a girl who burns for you (Kecal–Jenik, a.2) [2:11]
6. How can I believe (Jenik, a.2) [3:28]
7. Go away! You have deceived me (Jenik–Mařenka, a.3) [4:07]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839–1881)
Boris Godunov (1874)
8. O, the same dream (Grigory and Friar Pimen at the Chudov monastery, a.1) [11:49]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858–1924)
Tosca (1900)
9. E lucevan le stelle [3:00]
10. O dolci mani (Cavaradossi–Tosca a.3) [7:32]
La Bohème (1896)
11. Che gelida manina [4:29]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Un ballo in maschera (1859)
12. Di’ tu se fedele (a.1) [3:07]
13. Forse la soglia … Ma se m’è forza (a.3) [7:03]
14. Ah! Perchè qui! fuggite (a.3) [5:47]
15. Ella è pura (a.3) [4:49]
Ragnar Ulfung (tenor, all); Margareta Hallin (soprano) (2); Paul Höglund (bass) (5); Evy Tibell (soprano) (7); Bengt Rundgren (bass) (8); Birgit Nilsson (soprano) (10); Aase Nordmo-Løvberg (soprano), Birgit Nordin (soprano), Hugo Hasslo (baritone), Bo Lundberg (bass), Arne Tyrén (bass) (13-15)
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Silvio Varviso (4, 9); Stora Teatern Orchestra, Gothenburg/Styrbjörn Lindedal (5-7); Royal Orchestra (and Chorus), Stockholm/Herbert Sandberg (1-3, 11), Bohumil Gregor (8), Fausto Cleva (10), Sixten Ehrling (12-15)
rec. at the Concert Hall, Gothenburg 5-6 May, 1958 (5-7), at the Royal Opera House 3 October, 1958 (3, 11), 13 January 1959 (12-15), 28 February 1960 (1, 2), 28 September 1964 (10), 22 April 1966 (8), unknown venue 2 November 1968 (4, 9)
BLUEBELL ABCD101 [77:53]



Ragnar Ulfung was born in Oslo in 1927 and made his stage debut there in 1952 in Menotti’s The Consul. After a sojourn in Bergen he came to Gothenburg where he stayed until 1958. From then on he was a member of the Royal Opera in Stockholm, where he became one of the most important singers in an ensemble built around a number of great names. From the 1950s and through their remarkable longevity they eventually came to be known as “The Iron Gang”. Ragnar Ulfung’s career lasted longer than most; in fact it hasn’t ended yet. In the autumn of 2003 I saw him at the premiere of The Bartered Bride in the character role of Circus Master, where he sang and acted with undiminished gusto and expressiveness. Expressive is indeed the keyword for Ragnar Ulfung: the acting is at least as important as the singing, which doesn’t automatically mean that singing is secondary. The present disc is ample proof of the opposite, but all through his career he was a character tenor with a voice. The recordings on this disc are from the early part of his career and reveal a mainly lyrical voice, well equalized, with a smooth legato and a seamless changeover from chest voice to head voice. His timbre is very characteristic and even though the voice at this stage isn’t as brilliant as some of his colleagues it is strong enough to carry through an orchestral tutti at forte and match even as glorious a voice as Birgit Nilsson’s in the scene from Tosca (tr. 10). Later his voice grew considerably and in 1983 he even took on Otello in a production where he was also the stage director. I vividly remember his penetrating portrait of the doomed moor.
 
Much later than that, when he was well past seventy, I heard him singing in concert a thrilling Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci with heft, ring and steadiness that tenors half his age would have envied. Besides his activities in Stockholm he had an important international career, in later years primarily as a character singer, visiting Vienna, Paris, La Scala Milan, Covent Garden and NY Met among other great houses, and also as director. He was sadly under-recorded but to an international public he will probably be best remembered for his chillingly oily Monostatos in Ingmar Bergman’s famous film version of Die Zauberflöte.
 
All the recordings on this disc are from broadcasts by Swedish Radio. As so often with the issues in this invaluable Bluebell series “Great Swedish Singers”, we get incidental glimpses – often more than that – of his colleagues. Most of the scenes are sung in Swedish, which is very little of a drawback in most cases. He is an ardent and expressive Hoffmann in the two excerpts from Offenbach’s opera where we also hear Margareta as a superb Giulietta. The Dream Song from Manon is initially a bit unsteady but also shows his admirable legato and beautifully shaded pianissimos. In the Flower Song from Carmen he is occasionally slightly flat, a defect that became more pronounced in later years, but this is still a worthy impersonation of the ill-fated corporal: intense and lyrically glowing.
 
Three excerpts from The Bartered Bride, recorded in Gothenburg forty-five years before the Stockholm production I mentioned above. Here he is Jenik, as youthful and impassioned as any competitor: he can without indulgence be mentioned in the same breath as Wunderlich or Dvorsky, my favourites in the role. We also hear bass-baritone Paul Höglund, more sonorous and impressive than I ever heard him live. Evy Tibell is a fine Mařenka. He is likewise an expressive Grigory in the long scene from act 1 of Boris Godunov, where Bengt Rundgren is an impressive Pimen, warm and sonorous. I could have wagered a fiver that it was Kim Borg, so similar of timbre are they – and that is high praise indeed.
 
The Flower Song is sung in the original French and Cavaradossi’s È lucevan le stelle, recorded at the same concert, is in Italian. It is a lyrical reading as it should be, but there is no lack of heft and glow. The scene with Birgit Nilsson from a little later in the last act, actually starts a bit before Cavaradossi’s impassioned outburst O dolci mani, which has all the required schmalz and Ms Nilsson in one of her favourite roles is as regal as ever. Rodolfo’s Che gelida manina is expressive – for Ulfung the words were not something written for the sake of vocalizing - he always searched out the meaning behind them and chiselled the character accordingly. This is very obvious in the concluding numbers, which find him in his most famous part, as Gustavus III in Un ballo in maschera.

In 1959, one hundred years after the premiere of Verdi’s opera, the Royal Opera mounted a new production of the work, where the action was transported back to where Verdi originally intended: to Stockholm and the reign of King Gustavus. For this purpose poet Erik Lindegren was commissioned to make a new translation or, as it turned out, a partly new version, where he also tried to find a language that was ‘period’. He even quoted famous lines from the poet laureate Kjellgren. Göran Gentele was the stage director and the dynamic Sixten Ehrling conducted. It was a tremendous success, running for twenty years in 218 performances, most of them with Ulfung as Gustavus. It was also recorded by Swedish Television and has been shown a number of times. If I remember correctly that was a studio production but with practically the same cast as here, bar Holberg (Renato in the Italian Boston-located ‘original’) who was sung by Erik Saedén on TV while veteran Verdian Hugo Hasslo is briefly heard here.

The recording can only give a pale impression of Ulfung’s superb reading, since so much depended on the visual element. His way of walking, his feminine gestures and coquettish bearing in a way demolished the icon that the King had been; some people were honestly shocked. Ulfung’s light Norwegian accent also gave Gustavus a slightly foreign image – the ‘real’ Gustavus was Francophile. What we hear, though, is a bold, energetic and self-confident King, disguised as a Sailor in the first act Barcarole. The big third act aria - Gustavus’ monologue before the masked ball – is sung with a myriad nuances. The final scene is probably the most moving account I have heard – but I can’t set myself free from my remembrances of seeing it on TV. The cover picture above shows Ulfung in this, the role of his life.
 
All in all this disc is another priceless cultural achievement from Bluebell, at long last giving Ragnar Ulfung his rightful place in Swedish recorded opera history.
 
Göran Forsling

Earlier issues in this series
Leon Björker
Kjerstin Dellert
Barbro Ericson
Nicolai Gedda
Margareta Hallin
Rut Jacobsen
Kerstin Meyer
Erik Saedén
Elisabeth Söderström
Gösta Winbergh
Ingvar Wixell


 


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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