Let's begin by discussing tenors, a subject I know rather well. To start things off, I thought we could listen to Jussi singing Nessun Dorma, and compare it with Pavarotti. Here is Jussi in a recording I'm not very happy with, but it shows his vocal prowess:

Now listen to Pavarotti

Here's one more, Mario Lanza:

And finally, Franco Corelli.


I selected "Nessun Dorma" to discuss because it's the most well-known tenor aria in the popular media.

Bjorling was the Pavarotti of his day, the 30s through the 50s. In fact, when Pavarotti first came on the scene, the singer he was most compared to was Bjorling. He was an intelligent singer, capable of many styles and languages. His French and German was fluent.

He never sang the role of Calaf on stage, but recorded the entire opera with Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi and Giorgio Tozzi with the Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus, Erich Leinsdorf conducting just a year before his untimely death in 1960. Bjorling had what we call a spinto voice, that is, between lyric and dramatic. He sang mostly lyric roles, but many dramatic ones as well. I believe that while he sang this aria most successfully in concert many times, as a role, he shied away from it all his career because he knew the vocal demands would tax his voice to the absolute limit. It doesn't sound that way here, however. (Where his voice got gobbled up sometimes was in the ensembles. But all singers suffer that fate sometimes.)

As I said above, this YouTube does not show his voice to its best, but we can hear his lyricism weaved into a power than demands respect. Nevertheless, Bjorling's incredible breath control and effortless high notes can be enjoyed here.

The next singer, Pavarotti, has the advantage of twenty to thirty years of technological recording advancement. His voice has a brilliance, especially in his top notes, that carries over any orchestra. He of course, made this aria his own when in sang it in the 2000 Olympics. He did perform Calaf many times on stage, and his native language gave him a more intimate understanding of the role than most tenors might have. I personally often learn Italian roles and songs by listening to his recordings because his diction was so very clear. I knew I could count on his pronunciation since it was his native language.

Mario Lanza, the movie star of the 50s, recorded this aria for one of his movies. Seeing him is deceptive because he was not actually singing, but lip-synching his own recording, as all movie singers had to do. No one sang live in a movie. There are some TV YouTubes of Lanza, so on those we can see him actually singing. I thought he was singing in a lower key, and ran for my pitch-pipe to verify that he was singing in key (which is G major to D in the end, the high note being a B-natural. He was in key all right, making me more impressed with him. His voice has a rich, almost baritonal quality that none of the other singers had. Lanza was not a polished artist as were Bjorling and Pavarotti, but it's interesting to compare how they interpreted this aria. I wasn't convinced that Lanza knew exactly what he was singing about. Since he never studied the entire role, he really didn't know the story. I have found that to be a great disadvantage in my own singing. My sense is, Lanza didn't care about that level of achievement.

I included Corelli because he is the only singer of the four that I heard live in the opera house. In fact, Joan and I saw him sing Calaf opposite Nilsson. It was quite a circus on stage. Corelli had the most powerful voice I ever heard live. In fact, in the early going, he totally dominated Nilsson, a Wagnerian soprano. But by the end of the opera, he had run out of steam while she was just warming up. She won the last duet.

That's actually a rather sad commentary, which focuses on stage hijinks instead of the story and music. But Corelli sang first and acted second. Pavarotti was always Pavarotti on stage. I never saw Bjorling, so I cannot comment on his stagecraft.

What do you think? Which singer is your favorite? Why? Is singing more important than acting?