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Joseph Calleja: "Verdi"

CD Button Gheorghiu; Vitelli; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Tebar. Texts and translations. Decca 483 1549

Recordings Calleja Verdi Cover 718
Critics Choice Button 1015 

YOUR OPINION of Joseph Calleja will depend on how you react to the defining characteristic of his voice—his rapid vibrato. Some find it distinctly off-putting; I love the bronzed sheen it gives to his sound and the way it sets him apart from every other tenor. The vibrato has a quickening effect on the singing itself, giving thrust to the line in a way that’s particularly appropriate to Verdi’s music, which is dramatically charged even in its most lyrical moments.

On his latest release, Calleja tackles arias and scenes from Aida, Il Trovatore, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlo and Otello, and there’s not a bum item among them. The solidity of his technique allows him to realize the music in all its details, with nothing tentative or approximate. The voice “sounds” equally throughout its range and at all dynamic levels. The rising octave of the defining phrase in “Celeste Aida” is here an unbroken arc, the timbre consistent from bottom to top. Some Otellos have to grumble their way through the lower Gs that launch “Già nella note densa,” but Calleja achieves the same vibrancy down here as on high. Last fall, in Norma at the Met, I heard him come a-cropper in the high ending of Pollione’s cabaletta, but the Cs in “Di quella pira” here have a blazing, Pavarottian power. Even more impressive is the way he articulates the recurring sixteenth-note figure that sets the famous number’s polacca rhythm into motion. The trill in “Ah sì, ben mio” is the real deal, and Calleja makes it clear why Verdi put it there.

Half the disc is given over to chunks of Otello—the love duet, “Sì, pel ciel,” “Dio! mi potevi scagliar” and “Niun mi tema.” This is not a role currently on Calleja’s calendar, but here it sounds like a plausible prospect: the voice has plenty of metal. Vittorio Vitelli joins Calleja for the big tenor–baritone duets from Otello, Forza and Don Carlo. His sound isn’t plush, but it has a grit uniquely suited to this composer. Angela Gheorghiu sings Desdemona in the Otello duet, her voice retaining its familiar translucency, if not as steadily emitted as in years past. The orchestra is the pit band of Valencia’s opera, and its experience tells: under Ramón Tebar, its playing enhances the theatrical punch of the tenor’s work.  —Fred Cohn 

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