Reviewed by Johan Palme on 7th December, 2019
The late, great Jessye Norman, who passed away in September this year at the age of 74, is far from the only opera singer to release a Christmas album. But her 1987 effort, Christmastide, may be the best one of them all. Its dramatic verve and artistic coherence make it unparalleled. And yet, the very thing that makes it work so well may well lie outside of the genre it’s meant to represent.
Perhaps its worth making the comparison. Two of the absolutely greatest operatic sopranos of the 20th century, Dame Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi, recorded beautiful Christmas albums some two decades earlier, and since the turn of the millennium newer stars like Fritz Wunderlich and Bryn Terfel have added worthy recordings of their own. But all of them share a focus on the star power of their central protagonist, powerfully projecting the full strength of their technique. The arrangement of the music that surrounds them can often be described as functional, taking a distinct subservient role to the start turn of the great vocalist in the spotlight.
It works well – up to a point. But it can often be a little one-dimensional. Jessye Norman, by contrast, attempts something competely different here, together with an arranger-conductor whose background is in fussily arranged pop and in choir music, not opera. Jessye Norman’s voice is nearly constantly restrained, mixed almost alarmingly low in a setting with two full choirs and an orchestra, sometimes only her supreme squillo, the ringing singing style of the great soprano, allowing her to be heard at all. Look at the accompanying television special, and what amounts to the greatest opera performer in the world, at the height of her powers, is often barely in frame, hidden away in a corner while the choirs and orchestra are allowed to go at it, full blast. It allows for a devastating sense of drama – and when she does break through, it becomes all the more astounding.