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Johan Botha (tenor)
Italian Opera Arias
rec. live 1998-2007, Vienna State Opera
ORFEO C967192 [70:54 + 68:49]

South-African-born Johan Botha tragically died of cancer in 2016 at the early age of 51. He had lived in Vienna for many years and although his career took him to most of the great opera houses the Vienna State Opera was his musical home since his debut there in 1996. Totally he appeared there 222 times, and almost exactly half of those performances were in Italian repertoire. The live recordings on the present twofer span almost ten years and encompass many of his greatest roles. A previous issue on the same label presents excerpts from his German repertoire (review, review), and together these issues give a very good picture of Johan Botha’s activities at the Vienna State Opera during his nineteen years there.

It is worth noting from the outset that his voice wasn’t free from blemishes. Quite early there is a tendency to a beat, primarily in the middle register, and his top notes also become more and more effortful. Against this must be mentioned that his wholehearted identification with the various role characters at least to some degree silences criticism, that his power on the one side and his lyrical sensitivity on the other always endears the discriminating listener, and of course his magnificent climaxes draw ovations from those operagoers for whom singing is first and foremost a sports achievement, comparable to a pole-vaulter or high jumper touching the world record. That even at the Vienna State Opera there are many visitors who belong to this category is amply demonstrated after most of his solos.

Don Carlo was one of Johan Botha’s favourite roles, even though he performed it relatively seldom on the stage. For different reasons he didn’t sing it until 2003 in Salzburg and later in Vienna and at the Met he returned to it for a couple of series. In both cases he was partnered by Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and it is a double tragedy to hear them together in the first track of this set, considering that both died so young. Hvorostovsky’s Rodrigo is unfortunately drowned by the orchestra at his first entrance but otherwise he is in good shape, while Botha even as early as 2005 shows signs of the beat mentioned earlier. In 1998 and 1999 Botha sang two series of I vespri siciliani and then, when he was in his early 30s, he was in glorious voice. Partnered by Renato Bruson in the two tenor-baritone duets, he shows world class, hardly any strain and brilliant top notes. Bruson was himself a phenomenon when it comes to longevity. He was at the time well past 70 but still sings confidently and though his voice has dried a bit there is still a certain freshness about him. Arrigo’s aria, recorded the year after the duets, is really beautifully sung and the ovations are well-deserved. Radams’s Celeste Ada, recorded seven years later, reveals that the intervening years have taken their toll on his vocal cords. The strain is more marked, his singing is more effortful, but he obeys Verdi’s pianissimo marking at the end – his artistic instinct was great – and as a result the ovations are restricted. He didn’t try to break through the sonic barrier!

He was a great Otello and his entrance after the storm scene with Esultate! is strong but not as glorious as Del Monaco’s. The love duet that concludes the first act, is however first class, Stoyanova is an excellent Desdemona and the end is magical. In Dio! mi potevi scagliar he is a bit shaky but deeply involved and Niun mi tema is touching.

On CD 2 we meet him in the title role of Andrea Chenier, another favourite role of his, though also one he didn’t sing on stage very often. The excerpts here are from his first series of the opera at the State Opera in 2003. The aria from the first act, Un di all’azzurro spazio is beautifully sung with excellent legato and finely graded dynamics, intense as well but not completely without strain. The duet Ecco l’altare is one of the best things on this set and Violeta Urmana is an excellent Maddalena, strong and confident. The hit aria Come un bel di di Maggio goes well and the final duet is also highly dramatic and intense - almost too much in fact. Botha had a tendency to over-sing, which always is a risk in a live recording. The audience see the feelings and accept the exaggerations as part of the concept but the microphones can’t convey the visual aspect and the sound comes over as too unsophisticated. But I don’t say that this is a great problem. Both artists were intelligent and musical and there is a lot of balanced and very beautiful singing from both.

From the eternal verismo twins Cav & Pag we are offered a couple of highlights – both were recorded in 1999 when Botha was still at his freshest. In the heated scene Tu qui, Santuzza? There are sparks flying and Agnes Baltsa is a formidably temperamental Santuzza – as she also was on the DG recording with Domingo under Sinopoli made about a decade earlier. In the emotional final scene Mamma, quell vino generoso Botha catches the softer side of Turiddu and sings with great warmth. At times his sound is quite baritonal – and no wonder since he started his career as a bass-baritone, debuting as Falstaff no less! Canio’s Vesti la giubba is intense but avoids the most lachrymose sobs that for instance Beniamino Gigli indulged in. The finale is crowned with a furious No, Pagliacci non son, before which, to judge from the stage noise, Canio turned over most of the furniture. It is permeated with desperation. Cristina Gallardo-Domas is a brilliant Nedda.

Finally two favourite parts in Puccini operas. In 2007, when the Tosca arias were recorded, he was still only 42, but the strain is very tangible. E lucevan le stelle is certainly beautifully sung, but the vibrato is clearly wider than only a couple of years earlier. The Turandot excerpts are better in that respect and no one can be unmoved by his glowing Nessun dorma.

Admirers of Johan Botha can with confidence invest in this set. There may be blemishes but there isn’t a dull moment. Botha certainly lived his roles and it is a great pity that he is no longer among us. But his recordings – he is the most recorded South African in the history of the gramophone – are worthy memorials to his art. There are many complete operas – on CD as well as DVD – and the present issue – together with the Orfeo issue with German repertoire mentioned above – give a rounded portrait of his achievements.

There is however a disc I would like to call attention to, and that is his recital with Italian arias, made in Vienna under studio conditions in 2001. It includes no less than eight of the arias on the present set: Vespri, Ada, Tosca (E lucevan le stelle), Turandot (Nessun dorma), Cavalleria, Pagliacci and Andrea Chenier (both arias), and in many cases they are preferable to the live efforts. This is an Arte Nova recording and it is still available as a download.

The sound of these live recordings from the Vienna State Opera is slightly variable but highly satisfying and Johan Botha’s many admirers should doubtless invest without delay.

Gran Forsling

CD 1 [70:54]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Don Carlo:
1. Act 1 Aria Io l’ho perduta – Duet lull ... dessol ... l’infante! [12:49]
I vespri siciliani:
2. Act 1 Duet Qual il tuo nome? [9:32]
3. Act Duet Sogno, o son desto? [11:57]
4. Act 4 Aria E di Monforte il cenno – Giorno di pianto, di fier dolore [8:28]
5. Act 1 Aria Celerste Aida [4:54]
6. Act 1 Esultate! [1:09]
7. Act 1 Duet Gi nella notte densa [10:07]
8. Act 3 Monologue Dio! Mi potevi scagliar [4:51]
9. Act 4 Aria Niun mi tema [6:18]

CD 2 [68:49]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867 – 1948)
Andrea Chnier:
1. Act 1 Aria Un di all’azzurro spazio [5:15]
2. Acr 2 Duet Ecco l’altare [8:13]
3. Act 4 Aria Come un bel di di maggio [3:20]
4. Act 4 Finale Vicino a te s’acqueta [7:23]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
Cavalleria rusticana:
5. Duet Tu qui, Santuzza? [11:55]
6. Finale Mamma, quel vino generoso [6:08]
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919)
7. Act 1 Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio – Vesti la giubba [4:21]
8. Act 2 Finale Nome di Dio! Quelle stesse parole! [8:23]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
9. Act 1 Aria Recondita armonia [2:59]
10. Act 3 Aria E lucevan le stelle [3:35]
11. Act 1 Aria Non piangere Li [2:17]
12. Act 3 Aria Nessun dorma [3:52]

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone) (CD 1: 1); Renato Bruson (baritone) (CD 1: 2, 3); Krassimira Stoyanova (soprano) (CD 1: 7); Falk Struckmann (baritone) (CD 1: 8); Violeta Urmana (soprano) (CD 2: 2, 4); Agnes Baltsa (mezzo-soprano) (CD 2: 5, 6); Cristina Gallardo-Domas) (soprano); Leo Nucci (baritone); Manuel Lanza (baritone); Herwig Pecoraro (tenor) (CD 2: 8), others; Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Philippe Jordan (CD 1: 1); Roberto Abbado (CD 1: 2, 3); Fabio Luisi (CD 1: 4); Stefan Soltsz (CD 1: 5); Daniele Gatti (CD 1: 6-9); Adam Fischer (CD 2: 1-4); Simone Young (CD 2: 5-8); Plcido Domingo (CD 2: 9, 10); Leopold Hager (CD 2: 11, 12)

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