Joseph Calleja: Verdi
What is the purpose of a disc of arias from operas the singer has never performed? An audition tape? Trying on the role for size? Sometimes they can be a great success and there are notable examples of singers recording complete operas they never sang on stage (Maria Callas, for example, never performed La bohème or Carmen). While Joseph Calleja’s new disc of Verdi arias is an exciting signal of intention, the tenor seeming entirely comfortable even in roles as daunting as Otello, Sonya Yoncheva does not yet sound the right scale for some of the lirico-spinto repertoire on her Verdi album. The latter is an example of a singer ‘jumping the gun’ in committing interpretations to disc where they’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.
Calleja is not a clarion trumpeter but his tenor is tinted with soft golden hues, sunshine beaming through the voice much the same way as it did with Luciano Pavarotti. Coloured with a gentle flutter of vibrato, though much less prominent than in his early days, it has an old-school quality of a Björling or Di Stefano, which is high praise indeed. The honeyed ease with which he floats phrases in Don Alvaro’s aria from La forza del destino is winning and he makes Radamès’ paean to ‘Celeste Aida’ beautifully eloquent. In interview, Calleja has pointed out that you don’t need a barnstorming tenor to sing Manrico; there’s poetry in the phrasing of ‘Ah, sì ben mio’ followed by a spirited ‘Di quella pira’ cabaletta.
Decca’s disc is intelligently programmed, with a selection of duets to offer more rounded character portraits, with around 25 minutes of music from Otello to close. Vittorio Vitelli, a serviceable baritone if a bit pedestrian, partners Calleja in the glorious Friendship Duet from Don Carlo along with the final Alvaro-Carlo encounter from Forza where Alvaro is goaded into a duel, and ‘Sì, per ciel marmorio giuro’ once Iago has planted the seeds of jealousy into Otello’s fragile mind. Calleja is lyrical and tender in the Otello love duet opposite the Desdemona of Angela Gheorghiu, who is more affecting here than in her blowsy, overwrought contribution to ‘Di quella pira’.
‘Dio mi potevi’ is scrupulously sung but it’s here that you detect the tell-tale sign that Otello is a role Calleja’s yet to perform on stage. Despite beautifully observed dynamics, it’s the same with ‘Niun mi tema’. Only with stage experience will Calleja start to get under the Moor’s skin. Ramón Tebar and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana offer solid support, although the great clarinet solo from Forza – an aria in itself – lacks a little silk.
Yoncheva has often impressed me enormously. Her Violetta at Covent Garden had me weeping buckets and her Norma, which she learnt at pretty short notice, was incredibly accomplished. But a lot of the repertoire here is on the lirico-spinto side of the repertoire – which is probably where her voice is heading, but it’s not quite there yet. The creaminess which seduced me in her ‘Paris, mon amour’ (6/15) disc is less evident here, replaced by a steely glint.
The one role on the disc that she had performed by the time of Sony’s recording (in April 2017) was Desdemona in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera the previous autumn, which she reprises next season. We’re deprived the Willow Song (alas) but her ‘Ave Maria’ is beautifully heartfelt and poised, aside from a less than secure A flat before her final ‘amen’. She recently sang her first Elisabeth de Valois in a starrily-cast Paris production of the original French version of Don Carlos. Here, we have the Italian revision, and Elisabetta’s ‘Tu che le vanità’ pushes Yoncheva to the limit of her resources. At times the voice sounds fragile, although her phrasing is always sensitive. Another upcoming role is Luisa Miller and she attacks ‘Tu puniscimi, o Signore’ with admirable spirit.
Of the other roles, I cannot imagine her wanting to take on Odabella (Attila) or Abigaille (Nabucco), which require a more fearless blade that can shred lighter voices. However, she enjoys Odabella’s more lyrical moments, coping with coloratura runs gracefully. Of the roles that will suit her – in time – her Amelia (Simon Boccanegra) is attractively sung and there’s admirable agility in her cabaletta from Act 1 of Il trovatore. Another Leonora – from La forza del destino – fits Yoncheva to perfection, the final ‘malediziones’ in the aria ‘Pace, pace mio Dio!’ incisively driven.
I was sometimes reminded of Angela Gheorghiu’s early ‘Verdi Heroines’ disc (Decca, 7/00), which also contained a lot of roles she never went on to perform (Elisabetta was a big loss when she withdrew from Nicholas Hytner’s Royal Opera production). Gheorghiu’s voice had more luscious weight then than Yoncheva’s (as yet) although some of her lower notes also had an unattractive vampish quality. Gheorghiu enjoyed the support of Riccardo Chailly and his La Verdi orchestra and they’re more naturally suited to this rep than the Munich Radio Orchestra under Massimo Zanetti for Yoncheva. Just listen to the introduction to ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’ from Boccanegra: with Chailly, the dawn comes to vivid life, the birds chirrup and swirl above the Grimaldi palace and there is a gentle ebb-and-flow rubato to the main aria; in Munich, it’s a little more plodding and unimaginative.
Texts and translations are included in both discs but contexts are clumsily contained in Sony’s dreadfully written booklet note, with empty sentences like ‘The communication between men and women is a powerful engine of Verdi’s dramas’. Tsk.