This handsome boxed set comes with unexpected Kiwi connections.

With NZ Opera's Carmen playing in Auckland, you may well appreciate a bonus DVD of the opera, nestling among the eight CDs that make up The Art of Grace Bumbry. The American mezzo gives an electrifying performance as Bizet's heroine, by turns fiery, sultry and sassy, yet always illuminated by a sense of inner strength and dignity.

Theatrically, it's a curiosity from 1967, directed as well as conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Casting is first-rate with Jon Vickers as Don Jose and Mirella Freni as Micaela but some sensibilities may twitch at the original spoken dialogue being replaced by recitatives.

Bumbry visited New Zealand in 2005 to judge the Lexus Song Quest, the competition that catapulted winner Madeleine Pierard into a successful operatic career. Back then, she was proud of her youthful performances in Handel's Israel in Egypt and Judas Maccabeus, and Handelians will be grateful that this new set includes the 1957/58 recordings of these complete oratorios.


A generous selection of operatic arias, including a sampling from Gounod's rarely heard Sapho, reaches its peak with Verdi, hinting at what triumphs lay ahead for her in roles such as Azucena and Lady Macbeth.

A pupil of the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann, Bumbry sang German Lieder with a special intelligence and authority, showcased here in a range of 1962 and '64 recordings. Across 35 tracks, it is the range that impresses as she moves from dramatic Schubert through the psychological finesse of Wolf to a spellbinding two minutes of Liszt lyricism.

Back in 2005, Bumbry laughed out loud when I brought up her 1962 recording of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's re-jigging of Bizet's opera as Broadway musical. I wonder now how she might have reacted to her 1995 cross-over album, With Love, which has been included in this new collection.

Divas and divos are known for their strange and often misguided excursions on the pop side but this is a truly bizarre specimen. After an opening duet with Dionne Warwick, she moves through evergreens like Smile, My Way and Sometimes when we touch, treating these melodic trifles to a chauffeured ride in a Rolls-Royce of a voice, decades before Renee Fleming discovered Bjork.

What: The Art of Grace Bumbry (Deutsche Grammophon)
Rating: 5/5
Verdict: A fascinating 80th birthday salute to a great US diva