Delight, disappointment, dismay: barometrical readings in brief. The delight followed discovery of the recital's existence, for Dennis O'Neill is not only one of our best singers but also a prime and exceptional example of the sort we reckon not to produce, the tenor commonly labelled 'Italian'. Disappointment was provoked initially by the programme, an apparently random collection of popular arias and songs of the Sorrento type with newly arranged orchestral accompaniment. But dismay, or something akin to it, came with realization that, even of its kind, the recital was not distinguishing itself. Certainly the voice records well: firmly, truly, resonantly in the tradition of all those tenors whose illustrious names rise most obviously to rnind. Yet to join their ranks, something more stylish, personal, imaginative and, ultimately, more refined is needed.
A general awareness that this is so arises as one listens to the Puccini arias (Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Turandot) where no very great subtlety is demanded, and yet which respond to the imaginative touch which, every now and then, all the really memorable tenors bring to them. In ''Cielo e mar'' (La Gioconda) the lack becomes inescapable. True, a well-turned phrase (''O sogni d'or'') rounds off the first verse gracefully, but elsewhere this most poetic of arias is given rough treatment, unreflective and over-emphatic.A happier example is the song called Pecche. Here, O'Neill sings, especially in the opening, with the lyric continence expected of him; yet comparing Caruso, who recorded it in 1915, one hears how an affectionate personal touch in shading or in portamento will transform such a piece. Or one might try Gigli (1922) in Toselli's Serenata by way of comparison: the Italian's is a wooing, caressing style, with an imaginative give and take in tempo, product of a genuine refinement, the overlooked part of the Italian tradition. At his best, Dennis O'Neill is worthy of such comparisons, as would be clear if the BBC were to delve deeper into its archives and make available the recital in which seven or eight years ago, if I remember right, he sang Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets with such beauty and skill as to make one wonder who of the great ones could possibly have done them better. Meanwhile, here (to put a cheerful face on it) is a healthy voice in a tuneful repertoire, impassioned and almost, it might be supposed, more Italian than the Italians.