Johan Botha: Italian Opera Arias
This double album serves as a natural follow-up to a selection of scenes by Beethoven, Strauss and Wagner, recorded live at the Vienna State Opera, brought out by Orfeo a couple of years ago (7/17). There a booklet essay explaining how Johan Botha’s security and elegance in the most demanding repertoire was built on his command of the Italian repertoire, and that’s what we get here in a further selection of live recordings from the Haus am Ring.
The late South African tenor is never less than impressive, negotiating even the most taxing vocal lines smoothly and stylishly. The voice is focused and well supported throughout its range: this is a singer whose well-schooled technique can be heard in every phrase. He sails through the Vespri siciliani extracts, his ‘Nessun dorma’ is unusually elegant and Chénier’s lines are spun out in long legatos. We have a delicate, sensitive account of ‘Celeste Aida’, replete with a proper decrescendo on that final B flat, and some unusually tender contributions to Otello’s ‘Già nella notte densa’, where he is joined by Krassimira Stoyanova’s classy Desdemona.
But while Botha’s remarkable reliability was such a virtue in the tiring lines of Wagner and Strauss and the solidity of his technique here shouldn’t be underestimated, the Italian repertoire highlights what the tenor was less adept at. He does very little acting with a smoothly regulated timbre that doesn’t offer much Italianate colour, and he occasionally hovers a whisker beneath the note. Characterisation was not his forte and there’s little sense of the passions that burn furnace-like at the heart of these red blooded creations.
You get a hint, perhaps, in Otello’s ‘Dio! Mi potevi scagliar’, and Botha adds a few little sobs into ‘Niun mi tema’ – and to Canio’s ‘Vesti la giubba’ too – but I miss those characters’ elemental drive. With Violeta Urmana’s serene Maddalena at his side, meanwhile, Chénier’s ‘Vicino a te’ is certainly impressively sung but never erupts quite as it might, even if the audience does so enthusiastically at the close. Indeed, the audience reactions throughout are testament to Botha’s effectiveness in the theatre, but it’s not something that’s always ideally captured by the microphones here.