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Joseph Calleja: The Golden Voice
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) I Lombardi: La mia letizia infondere vorrei; Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) La favorita: Favorita del re! … Spirto gentil; L’elisir d’amore: Una furtiva lagrima; Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 – 1835) La sonnambula: Elvino! E me tu lasci ... Son geloso del zefiro errante; Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893) Roméo et Juliette: L’amour, l’amour ... Ah! Lève-toi, soleil!; Jules MASSENET (1842 – 1912) Manon: Instant charmant ... en fermant les yeux; Jacques OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880) La Belle Hélène: Au mont Ida (Le Jugement de Pâris); Jules MASSENET Werther: Pourquoi me réveiller; Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875) Les Pêcheurs de perles: Je crois entendre encore; Adolphe ADAM (1803 – 1856) Si j’étais roi: Elle est princesse!; Gaetano DONIZETTI Il Duca d’Alba: Inosservato penetrava in questo sacro recesso ... Angelo casto e bel; Don Sebastiano: Deserto in terra; Vincenzo BELLINI I puritani: Son già lontani; Giuseppe PIETRI (1886 – 1946) Maristella: Io conosco un giardino
Joseph Calleja (tenor)
Anna Netrebko (soprano) (La sonnambula), Tatiana Lisnic (soprano) (Manon)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Carlo Rizzi
rec. All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak, London, 16–21 May 2005
DECCA 475 6931 [59:23]

Recognising a golden egg when they have one, Decca have, not surprisingly, come up with a sequel to last year’s successful debut album for Joseph Calleja. The title is "The Golden Voice" and that’s exactly what the voice is. Not only does it have the lustre, beauty and splendour one associates with this precious metal, but it also recalls what is today commonly known as "The Golden Age" of singing in his use of it. In an appreciation in the booklet, Calleja’s voice teacher Paul Asciak mentions "Anselmi, Bonci, Schipa, early Gigli and Tagliavini". One could add De Lucia at the further end of the list and Björling at the nearest. In a way Calleja’s is an old-fashioned voice. It ha s that slight rapid vibrato, a flutter some would say but to me that word implies something unsteady, something nervous – and nervous it definitely isn’t. Anyway it makes his voice immediately recognizable. His use of it also belongs to the old school, when the singer’s personality depended more on his way of phrasing than delivering steely top notes. Make no mistake – the top notes are there but they are not used to excess, to show off. They are an integral part of his total tonal palette, but what impresses more in fact is his willingness to soften the voice, to phrase naturally according to the ebb and flow of the music. He also knows how to use rubato as a means of expression, the tempo fluctuations that allow him to hold back and expose an important phrase and then speed up again. His pianissimos are exquisite and he moves imperceptibly from chest to head voice, making his singing feel very much of a piece. Add to this that he is fully aware of his limits; he never forces and his choice of repertoire shows that he is not intent on singing his first Otello next week – possibly never – but one never knows. Calleja is still in the first blossoming of his career and a couple of arias here show that in due time he might gradually venture into heavier parts. Werther’s Pourquoi me reveiller is probably the best example here with full dramatic ring and power clearly in reserve.

Repertoire-wise the disc is divided into three categories. Firstly there are parts he is already singing. Then there are isolated arias – like the aforementioned one from Werther – which to date he has only sung in concert. Then there are "Golden Age" arias that became signature items for Golden Age tenors. Do we hear a difference? Well, in my case I listened to the disc together with my wife the same evening I had received it. In the middle of the Favorita aria, exquisitely sung, she said: "He has never sung this on stage!" The booklet confirmed that she was right. "He doesn’t sound involved" she continued "He sings the notes better than I have ever heard them sung, but he isn’t ... whatever the character’s name is!" A harsh verdict maybe, but there is more than one grain of truth in it, for if there is any criticism to be levelled against Calleja it is a certain lack of characterisation. Not that he doesn’t understand the predicament of each character; every aria is masterfully sung with the right inflections and all that, but Fernando (that’s his name, dear spouse!) in La favorita and Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore sound very much like the same person walking in and out of two different operas. But this is a problem that is inherent in the format of the recital disc, where we get only glimpses of the characters in question and then on to the next one, and the character has to be delineated with vocal means alone. A concert might give the same impression but there at least we have the facial expressions to add something to the aural picture. I may well have said this before but recital discs are better the less you hear of them – in one sitting – and this is not the singer’s fault, it’s characteristic of the format.

Dear reader, don’t let anything of what I have written deter you from listening to this disc. What’s in it is immensely more valuable than what is not. Let me highlight just a few things to prepare for my final verdict: The Lombardi aria (no recitative though) amply demonstrates his use of expressive rubato; the Favorita (by now we know that the tenor is Fernando) is unforced and intelligently phrased; Una furtiva lagrima has the most magical ending; the long scene from La sonnambula is full of lovely Bellinian cantilena and is further enhanced by the presence of Anna Netrebko who colours her expressive voice almost Callas-like; Roméo et Juliette has secure top notes – and fine identification (yes, it belongs to his stage repertoire as do both Elisir and Sonnambula); Pâris’s song from La belle Hélène is obviously modelled on Björling’s legendary 1938 recording, but lacks the last ounce of virility and the final high C isn’t as free as Björling’s; it’s still the best I’ve heard for ages. The romance from Les pêcheurs is full of light and shade but here the vibrato becomes more prominent than elsewhere on this recital and he sings it a notch or two more strongly than I would ideally like him to do. When it comes to seamless half-voice legato singing he can’t compete with the young Nicolaï Gedda and – more recently – Zoran Todorovich, but the end is truly magical. Si j’étais roi (not often heard today) finds him at his most expressive and, yes, it also belongs to his stage repertoire. The two Golden Age arias by Donizetti and the Puritani aria confirm what has already been said: the intelligent phrasing, the legato and the brilliant top notes. Finally there’s the real rarity: Pietri’s Maristella, an opera premiered at La Scala in April 1940 with Beniamino Gigli, no less, taking the part of Giovanni Raida. I can’t recall hearing this aria sung by anyone else but Gigli, who recorded it the same year. Without being an immortal masterpiece it is good music and grateful for a lyrical tenor voice, like Calleja’s.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields play like gods with wonderful string tone. Carlo Rizzi assists unobtrusively but flexibly. The sound quality is out of Decca’s top drawer and the booklet has full texts and translations but no notes on the music. The ordering of the music seems haphazard but with the programming facilities of the CD player one can easily arrange it according to one’s own wishes.

There is so much beautiful singing, such careful phrasing, such musicality, so much to admire on this disc. Yes, I believe Decca have come up with another Golden Egg!

Göran Forsling



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