Miliza Korjus - The Berlin Nightingale
Dame Joan Sutherland recalled that as a teenager one of the formative influences on her career was seeing Miliza Korjus in the MGM Johann Strauss II biopic, The Great Waltz. Korjus’s career is shrouded in mystery, as Malcolm Walker writes in the notes for this new CD. He is the first to put the record straight (Korjus has not made it into Grove or even New Grove Opera), and outlines her career, which began in Estonia in 1929. She was born in Warsaw (though her father was Swedish) sometime in the 1900s, maybe as early as 1908. She sang in Berlin at the Staatsoper, on the radio, and for Electrola between 1934 and 1936, then went to Hollywood, where she lived for most of the rest of her life; she died in 1980.
The Great Waltz was Korjus’s only American film, though she made at least one other, in Mexico in the 1940s. Sutherland recalled that she remained beautiful “until the day she died”, and that Korjus manufactured her own beauty cream, which she used to give to lucky friends. She also launched her own record label in the 1960s (Venus Recordings), the products of which, as Walker notes, “have since acquired a certain cachet”.
Korjus’s agility in rapid staccato passages is remarkable, and bears comparison with the most famous coloraturas. She can phrase with a charming, Viennese legato, a sort of Kreisler-like slide. Her technique, however, is not faultless; at the end of Il bacio she holds on to a high E and goes distinctly flat. Her singing doesn’t have the relaxed charm of her contemporary and rival on disc, the Telefunken ‘nightingale’, Erna Sack. Here and there are little gems: I especially like her version of Moszkowski’s Op. 15, known as Liebe kleine Nachtigall. This, like several other tracks, is conducted by Bruno Seidler-Winkler, who started his career with light music, but ended up a leading Wagnerian in Germany in the dark times.
It comes as a surprise to learn that Korjus’s roles in Berlin included Santuzza, but in the recitative and aria from Ernani (there is, surprisingly, no cabaletta), one can hear that her middle register was firm and had potential strength. Both the Mozart arias (“Der Holle Rache” and “Martern alle Arten”) have sparkle and some sense of drama, the Doll’s song from Hoffmann is assured, but of the opera arias the best are the two Rimsky-Korsakov extracts (the Act 2 aria from The Golden Cockerel and the Second Act one from