A little over a year ago I reviewed a double CD from Sony Classical
Essential José Carreras’. My verdict on this was that the
essential Carreras was to be found elsewhere, more specifically
in the Philips catalogue where he recorded throughout the 1970s
and even after that, His Sony years started around 1983 when his
voice was already in decline. Here now come two well-filled CDs
with extracts from the Philips catalogue. Those who want some
representative examples of the essential José Carreras are advised
to start here. ‘A Celebration’ is the title but what is celebrated
is not clear and the biographical notes give no clues. Since it
was issued originally in 1999 it might be in recognition of his
thirty years as an opera singer – he made his debut in Bellini’s
Norma in 1970. It might also be to mark a decade since
his return to the operatic stage in 1989 after fighting leukaemia
for two years.
But let us not
ponder too much on this. Instead we can confidently dive into
this collection, starting at the beginning of CD 1. The Bohčme
aria finds him at his best with big, generous tone, sensitive
phrasing, brilliance up on high and with the whole-hearted
involvement that always was his hallmark. In the two Tosca
arias, recorded three years earlier, he is in even more glorious
form. I still remember a guest appearance on the Stockholm
Opera at about this time, with Ricciarelli and Wixell, which
I heard on the radio. After the ecstatic ovations that followed
his E lucevan le stele, he reprised it, singing the
whole aria at a magical pianissimo. It is certainly magical
here too with superb breath control – definitely one of his
best recordings. The remaining two Puccini arias are from
a recital disc made in 1980. Listening very closely it is
possible to detect a marginal deterioration – but very marginal.
His Nessun dorma is still horse-lengths ahead of his
later essays on complete recordings.
A forward leap
of another five years takes us to Una furtive lagrima
from a complete L’elisir d’amore. There is also here
a lot of impassioned and sensitive phrasing but the tone is
beginning to show signs of tear and wear. But he ends the
aria with some wonderful pianissimo phrases.
He recorded Un
ballo in maschera complete under Colin Davis with Caballé
and Wixell but this recording of Gustavus’s aria is from an
earlier recital, contemporaneous with the Tosca excerpts.
As there he is at his youthful best with glorious tone and
honeyed pianissimos, challenging and even surpassing his friends
from The Three Tenors. The similarity with Giuseppe Di Stefano
is striking - the beauty of the voice and the technique is
even better. He never recorded Rigoletto complete and
I don’t know how often he sang the Duke of Mantua on stage
but his reading of the second act aria is unnecessarily unvaried.
Ernani is a role
for a tenore robusto and in my collection no one can quite
challenge Mario Del Monaco, which I reluctantly admit. His
brazen dark voice with seemingly unlimited supply of decibels
is so primitively thrilling. Carreras, trying to out-sing
his older colleague, barely reaches him to the waist. On the
other hand he is a more successful Manrico than I remembered.
From the early
1970s Philips recorded a series of early Verdi operas, several
of which had never been recorded before, not even by Cetra.
Lamberto Gardelli was the conductor and Carreras soon became
involved in the project, taking part in five of the sets.
The first one was Verdi’s second opera, Un giorno di regno,
which I believe was Carreras’s first complete opera. There
he wasn’t quite fully fledged, though the potential was obvious.
The aria from La battaglia di Legnano shows him at
the height of his powers and it’s a pity the compilers didn’t
include more of these rarities. They could have shunned some
of the popular items at the end of CD 1. There was also a
fine Lucia di Lammermoor and Rossini’s Otello
which could have been included.
He recorded Pagliacci
for EMI under Riccardo Muti at much the same time as the recital
disc disc with Vesti la giubba and both readings are
heart-rending. With Karajan he recorded for DG a second Tosca
and Carmen. His Flower Song is nuanced and dramatically
well considered but his tone is rather hoarse and pinched.
The final notes are magical, however.
The aria from
Werther is too strained for my taste but it is still
an honourable reading and the complete recording is one of
the top contenders with Frederica von Stade a marvellous Charlotte.
Lehár’s Dein ist mein ganzes Herz is sensitive – and
his German is OK – but he mars it with a beefy final note.
The items from
1993 are less interesting though they are sung with feeling.
If I remember
correctly he recorded a number of discs for the Spanish company
Ensayo, which were later licensed to Philips. I bought a four-LP
box and a separate LP in the 1980s, all of them with popular
songs and zarzuela arias. The Tosti songs belonged to this
batch. I would have preferred a few titles from his collection
of Spanish songs instead of the English language items at
the end of CD 2. All in all however this is an attractive
collection. Singers like Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli and
Carlo Bergonzi, even Pavarotti in the 1970s, have invested
these popular songs with more finesse. I was surprised at
Franco Corelli’s sensitivity in similar repertoire when I
reviewed a box with his EMI recordings not long ago (see review)
but Carreras is well worth hearing. Readers who want some
representative examples of the essential José Carreras are
advised to start here.