Various Artists

O Sole Mio: Canzoni, Vol. 1

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This album is something of a Neapolitan greatest-hits collection for the Austrian historical-recording label Preiser; there is none of the commentary or discographical information that is usual with such recordings, but there is a delightful selection of songs by many of the greatest operatic names of the first half of the 20th century. The Neapolitan song was perhaps the original crossover genre; coming from popular roots it was taken up by operatic composers and has existed close to the permeable boundary ever since. From the opening Enrico Caruso version of O sole mio, otherwise known as Elvis Presley's "It's Now or Never," the casual listener may be surprised by how many of these pieces he or she already knows. But the real thrill is the distinctiveness of the voices. The recordings here were made between 1907 and 1955, and especially those toward the beginning of the range vividly demonstrate the sheer individuality of singers in those days. For sheer power no one matched Caruso, but unusual vocal timbre was prized as much as power, and some of the lesser-known singers provide the biggest revelations. Hear Dmitri Smirnov's haunting 1912 recording of Mattinata (track 13), for example. The album ought to please anyone interested in a taste of how the great singers sounded during opera's golden age. Booklet notes are in German and English; each version includes the song texts at a stage somewhere between a summary and a full translation, but the original Italian texts are not included.

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