Joseph Calleja Pleases his Fans with an Evening of Verdi

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Joseph Calleja Sings Verdi: Joseph Calleja (tenor), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Ramón Tebar (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, 22.1.2016. (JPr)

Joseph Calleja copyright Simon Fowler decca 2
Joseph Calleja copyright Simon Fowler

Verdi, Macbeth – Ballet from Act 3; ‘O figli, o figli miei!’ & ‘Ah, la paterna mano’ (Macduff’s aria)
Rigoletto – ‘Questa o quella’
La traviata – Prelude to Act 3 & ‘Lunge da lei – De’ miei bollenti spiriti’
Simon Boccanegra – ‘O inferno! – Sento avvampar nell’anima’
Attila – Overture
Un ballo in maschera – ‘Forse la soglia attinse – Ma se m’è forza perderti’
Il trovatore – ‘Ah, si ben mio’
Nabucco – Overture
I Lombardi – ‘La mia letizia infondere’
Luisa Miller – Overture & ‘Oh! fede negar – Quando le sere’
I vespri siciliani – Overture
Aida – ‘Se quel guerrier – Celeste Aida’

Congratulations to Raymond Gubbay CBE who, if he doesn’t have opera in the round or 60 swans on stage during Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall (as he will again this June) brings some of the biggest names in opera to gala evenings at the Royal Festival Hall. Now in its 50th year Raymond Gubbay continues to put on a wide range of concerts, opera and ballet in major venues in London and across the country and is established as one of the leading promoters of popular classical music in the UK. All this is achieved without a penny of public subsidy. Though I’ve not been there for all of these five decades, I have been along for the ride for the major part of that time from his more ‘humble beginnings’ with many memorable Johann Strauss concerts with the splendid Willi Boskovsky as well as ‘A Night at the Opera’ evenings and his annual Christmas Festivals.

The popular phrase ’It does exactly what it says on the tin’ applied to this thoroughly old-fashioned evening. Chunks were hacked out from operatic masterpieces, ’bleeding’ rather less than if they were Wagner but still devoid of the context in which they occur in the operas – and so also devoid of any real dramatic sense and emotion. That this was an evening I was glad to attend however, meant that I realised what was in store beforehand, leaving my forensic critical sensibilities at the cloakroom along with my coat and bag.

The musical programme was not designed to tell us anything about Verdi’s development as a composer as the items performed did not give even a passing nod to their chronology. It was instead a slightly self-indulgent vehicle for Joseph Calleja’s supreme talent and vocal development. Calleja wrote in his ‘Welcome’ in the programme how he had planned the music we would hear him sing ‘to reflect my own personal journey with Verdi and how I have encountered him so far in my career. The first half covers the roles I have sung on stage … We begin with the Verdi role I first sang when I was 19 years old – Macduff in Macbeth … The second half of the programme represents the characters that lie ahead of me. One day I hope to be singing these on stage, but for the moment I am going to perform their famous arias.’ Genial and smiling on the platform this could not have been an easy evening for him; he apologised for having to keep walking on and off the platform, as he needed to sort himself out because he was still suffering from the aftermath of a bout of sinusitis. His singing didn’t seem to suffer unduly but it did mean he felt all he could manage was one encore despite the jubilant standing ovation from his devotees in the audience.

Overall the evening was a slightly strange one with all the toing and froing between the Verdi because it transpired that the conductor – the very energetic Ramón Tebar – was also ailing and was suffering with cramp in his arm. Occasionally the Philharmonia Orchestra – who can usually be relied on to play anything, anytime – revealed their lack of familiarity with the music they were playing, the brass was slow to ‘warm up’ and there was the odd fluffed entry.

I was slightly disappointed Calleja did not display any of the dramatic skill I know he possesses until rather late in the second half of this concert, when he embodied the despair and more reflective moments of Rodolfo’s ‘Oh! fede negar – Quando le sere al placido’ from Luisa Miller and was triumphant during ‘Celeste Aida’ culminating in a sublime pianissimo B flat as in the score. Throughout his voice – despite any lingering sinusitis – was in great shape and it is to be hoped that he will indeed be sensible and hold off from these less lyrical and more heroic tenor roles for a few more years. We heard nothing from Otello and Calleja wrote ‘This is a dream role for me, but I will not consider singing it for another ten years at least.’ This concert was on the day of his 38th birthday and the audience’s rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ – fully accompanied by the Philharmonia – was actually the first ‘encore’.

Elsewhere his vocal refinement was of the highest kind. In miniatures of near-perfect vocal art, with all Verdi’s impassioned music delivered with vigour and intensity, Calleja showed – by never resorting to shouting – what all dramatic singing should be. He filled the Royal Festival Hall – like no one else in my experience – with glorious tone and there were no gear changes from a well-supported sufficiently baritonal and smooth chest voice through to a ringing, if occasionally a touch dry, top. Though some others disagree with me, Calleja has always sounded rather like Pavarotti (who I heard live several times) but unlike him, I suspect Calleja will never be ‘King of the High C’s’. Characterisation remained an issue for me and for most of the concert – whether it was the angst and suffering of Macduff’s ‘O figli … Ah, la paterna mano’ from Macbeth or Oronte’s cavatina ‘La mia letizia infondere’ about secret love from the 1843 Il Lombardi alla prima crociata – everything was mostly sung with the same expression on Calleja’s genial and honest face. Vocally he was resplendent for the Duke’s ‘Questa o quella’ from Rigoletto and Alfredo’s ‘Lunga da lei … De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ but for the former he should ‘appear’ libidinous and smirking and for the latter, passionately devoted … but we never ‘saw’ this. Though this did not seem to matter much to all his many fans in the audience for whom he could do no wrong with this or the other arias from Simon Boccanegra, Un ballo in maschera or Il trovatore which he sang.

After an almost interminable opening with the Ballet music from Act III of Macbeth, which lasted about 10 minutes, the orchestra punctuated Calleja’s tenor bravura throughout the evening with their own contributions and had opportunities to show off. Sometimes an orchestra, if it is on top form, seems capable of playing the music regardless of an enthusiastically arm-waving conductor in front of them. As indicated above this was not the case here. There were measured accounts of four overtures, the ballet music and – best of all – the Prelude to Act III of La traviata with an eloquent contribution from the leader Tomo Keller’s violin. For a concert titled ‘Joseph Calleja Sings Verdi’ we heard too much of them on their own. When the Overture to I vespri siciliani began someone next to me said to their partner ‘They’ve played this before’ and because of some of the stylistic similarities to much of Verdi’s purely orchestral music (such as propelling buoyant rhythms, crescendos and brass-driven climaxes) it proved you can have too much of a good – but overly familiar – thing.

For what was his only encore, Joseph Calleja left Verdi far behind and went from impassioned declamation to tender reflection in ‘No puede ser’ a zarzuela romanza by Pablo Sorozábal. This was some of Calleja’s most carefree singing of the entire concert now that the finishing line was in sight and he brought the audience to their feet once again.

To conclude I must chastise the Royal Festival Hall patrons for not supressing their coughing which spoilt some of the quieter moments of the music and when we heard the Prelude from Act III of La traviata it seemed all the potential victims of lung infections in the audience had come out in sympathy with the TB-infected heroine of the opera!

Jim Pritchard

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