November 9, 2005

The Golden Voice (CD-Review)


November 2005

“There is so much beautiful singing, such careful phrasing, such musicality, so much to admire on this disc.”

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 has 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!



January Issue 2006

‘Follow that’ was the cry after a terrific debut; the splendid Calleja duly does.

The one thing that might be regretted about Joseph Calleja’s first recital (5/04) was that it left so little room for improvement. In this second disc he sings in a similar repertoire with similar excellence, the voice still fresh and young, the element of flicker-vibrato unobtrusively giving flavour and zest, the style delightfully combining its essential foundation of legato with an imaginative feeling for light and shade.

As on the previous outing, he shows himself to be particularly well suited to Donizetti. The tessitura exactly fits the natural placing of the voice, so that the arias from Il Duca d’Alba and Dom Sébastienare sung with poise, the high notes taken with an ease which is positively joyful. The melody of ‘Spiro gentil’ flos broadly, the expression catching at the sorrow if not the bitterness of the disillusioned lover.

‘Una furtive lagrima’ has its due complement of vocal graces, and in spirit suggest a very apt Nemorino (as indeed did the opera’s other well know solo, ‘Quanto é bella’, in the earlier recital).  There is also some stylish Bellini: a graceful ‘Son gia lontani’ from I puritani and the duet from La sonnambula sung with the delightful Anna Netrebko. He also goes into the (more or less) expected French repertoire, with a sensitive account of the Dream Song form Manon and an even more delicious dreaminess in Nadir’s romance from Les pecheurs de perles. In the Offenbach song his voice takes on a brighter edge, suggesting that he has Jussi Bjorling in mind. At other times (in the lush little bonne bouche from Maristella, for instance) the voice most often evoked is that of Giacomo Lauri-volpi.

I don’t hear much of Gigli (who recorded that aria) – or of Calleja’s contemporary and potential rival, Rolando Villazón. They’re so alike in the fine shading which characterizes the work of each, and (despite having the flicker-element in common) so very different in timbre. Villazón at present seems to be the developing artist, but we’re lucky to have both, each currently in his youthful prime.



January 7, 2006

The young Maltese Joseph Calleja rivals Rolando Villazón as the most exciting Italianate tenor of his generation. Both singers have gloriously fresh, sensuous voices, each with its own colouring – Villazón’s is more baritonal, Calleja’s lighter and brighter, with an intriguing mix of velvet and silver.

Donizetti and Bellini suit Calleja’s ardent yet graceful bel-canto style perfectly. The most famous number here, “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’elisir d’amore, is wonderfully supple and tender. Calleja combines beautifully with soprano Anna Netrebko in an intensely felt account of the duet from La sonnambula, and catches all the yearning melancholy of an aria from Donizetti’s rare Il duca d’Alba.
Native French singers may have brought more Gallic insouciance to Paris’s song from La Belle Hélène. But few have rivalled Calleja’s rapt delicacy in the Romance from Les Pêcheurs de perles, or his subtle shaping of Werther’s sad reverie.

As a digestif we get a luscious aria from Giuseppe Pietri’s once popular Maristella, sung with glowing fervour, yet no whiff of vulgarity. This is a discerning, often thrilling recital by a singer in his first full bloom.



January 13, 2006

While titles such as The Golden Voice on recital discs are frequently just rhetoric, for once the hype is supported by the evidence. This young tenor made his debut recital last year to considerable praise, the only caveat being the possibility that Calleja’s light voice would confine him to lighter roles. But comparisons with his earlier debut recital on disc show that his voice has gained weight and authority while retaining its lyrical timbre, refined sense of legato and sensitive phrasing. To be specific, on the evidence of this disc Calleja’s voice has expanded in depth and colour, is even throughout the register with a ringing and secure top. While he has a light vibrato, it is not intrusive and evokes memories of fine tenors in the past.

Last year’s comparisons were drawn with the young Pavarotti, and this recital certainly validates and strengthens them. The arias Calleja sings here are generally from the lighter repertoire of French and Italian, but he sounds as if he could sing heavier roles while retaining the interpretive sensitivity which marked his first recital. His singing of Donizetti’s Deserto in Terra is quite memorable and, as in his previous recital, his handling of the French repertoire is impeccable.

A rising star, then; this tenor now sounds like the real thing, and if Calleja’s voice continues to develop along the lines apparent from this disc, he could very well claim Pavarotti’s crown in the next few years.



November 2005
Performance starstarstarstarstar (4/5)
Sound  starstarstarstarstar (4/5)

In the note he contributes to the Maltese tenor’s second CD, his teacher Paul Asciak, describes how Joseph Calleja’s voice was discovered and how it has developed. Part of his vocal education was to listen to the greats of the past – Anselmi, Bonci, Schipa, Gigli and others – and to an extent this recital is a tribute to their tradition as well as a demonstration of how it has borne fruit again in Calleja himself.

Collectors may fondly remember items such as Paris’s solo from La belle Hélène and the pretty piece from the forgotten Giuseppe Pietri’s Maristella (1934) from old recordings by artists of the past. Calleja brings them to life once more with his distinctive tone, comprehensive technique and diligent artistry. Arguably he has been too literal in singing the arias from Donizetti’s La favorite andDom Sebastien in Italian, as they regularly used to be sung, instead of the French originals the composer set. It’s certainly not because his French is deficient – witness the extracts from ManonPearl Fishers and Adam’s Si j’etais roi; indeed Calleja savours texts, whether French or Italian. Everything is delivered with skill and imagination, and it’s a worthy successor to his previous disc.



December 2005
starstarstarstarstar (4/5)Joseph Calleja is still in his mid-twenties, but already establishing himself as a tremendous tenor in the making.  His voice is high, light but strong, capable of glorious flights of virtuosity in this largely bel canto repertory; there’s also the hint of a latent heroic quality that suggests he could move on, when he’s older, to the great Romantic roles.  He’s lovely in the French arias, marvelous at conveying romantic yearning.  One to Watch.



20 November 2005

‘For a Maltese, he makes a remarkably Italianate sound,’ I wrote here of Joseph Calleja’s debut album a year ago. The young tenor has since continued to take purposeful strides across the world’s opera stages and now returns to the studio with bel canto material well suited to his still developing voice. The more lyrical moments from Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini – notably ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and ‘Son gia lontani’ – bring out his warmth of tone and range of expression, as do two delightful duets with sopranos Anna Netrebko (Bellini’s ‘La Sonnambula’) and Tatiana Lisnic (Massenet’s ‘Manon’). Here is a superstar in the making.



30 October 2005

Since releasing his first recital in 2003, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s stock has had a meteoric rise. He has already performed in many great opera houses and is set to make his Metropolitan debut in New York in 2006.

This second recital has been keenly awaited and has been awhile in coming. Well, here it is; and what a disc this is! The programme includes 14 arias, eight from the Italian operatic repertoire and six from the French.

All the pieces are carefully chosen to suit Calleja’s very special voice, a lyrical, exciting and limpidly fresh singing instrument which has a wonderful ability to sing legato and fantasy-like diminuendos with natural aplomb.

Calleja also has the amazing talent to make transitions from chest to head voice with consummate ease. The arias Son Già lontani (I Puritani), Son geloso del zefiro errante (La Sonnambula), Elle est princesse! (Si j’etais roi),Ah! Leve-toi soleil! (Romeo et Juliette) and Una furtive lacrima (L’Elisir d’Amore) are all in Calleja’s current repertoire, and his interpretations are as thrilling as they are passionate.

In the Sonnambula duet, Calleja is ably supported by Anna Netrebko, one of today’s top sopranos to come out of Russia. The recital also includes three other Donizetti arias: Spirito gentil (La Favorita), Angelo casto e bel (Il Duca d’Alba) and Deserto in terra (Don Sebastiano). I was introducd to the latter two by luciano Pavarotti way back in the Seventies, and I have retained my deep affection for them ever since; so, apart from going back down memory lane, Calleja’s reditions of these two gems also gave me the opportunity to compare and contrast the two voices. Different timbre yes; but no less exciting nonetheless.

Calleja’s heart-wrenching plea the Duca d’Alba piece, “la mia memoria Amelia almen non maledir” brings a lump to the throat. InPourquoi me revelleir (Werther), Instant charmant (Manon) and Je crois entendre encore (Les Pecheurs de Perles) the singer grabs the opportunity enthusiastically to display both his glorious high register and mellifluous pianissimo.

In the Manon piece Calleja finds himself in the company of his Moldovan-born wife, Tatiana Lisnic, another fine soprano, whose fresh sounding voice is a perfect match with the tenor’s intoxicating expressiveness. The remaining French aria Au Month Ida (La Belle Helene) is a honeyed bonbon by Offenbach dispatched with a joie-de-vivre that is infectious.

The opening and closing pieces of this marvellous recital are both taken from the Italian repertoire. Although short, the arias La mia letizia infondere (I Lombardi) and Io  conosco un giardino (Maristella)are both vehicles for some excellent phrasing and articulate fluency, two aspects of Calleja’s natural talent that come to the fore with youthful immediacy.

The Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, under the benign direction of Carlo Rizzi, never tries to take centre stage, and always allows the singer to project the beauty of this God-given gift. Excellent annotations by Paul Asciak and some wonderful atmospheric sound quality complete a CD which should be in every Maltese opera lover’s collection as well as of those who appreciate great music for its own sake.



3 June 2006

Calleja’s specialty is in restoring the bel canto singing tradition as in past voices such as Schipa’s and Gigli’s. His medium-size lyric voice is ideal for Donizetti, such as in Una furtiva lagrima, where his elegant legato, frontal voice production and ecstatic tone quality are bel canto at its best. His Bellini duet, shared equally with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko (what a scoop!), has depth of passion. In Nadir’s Romance from Bizet’s Pearlfisher, his subtly shaded diminuendos and the ravishing sensitivity of his head tone make this his most moving item from a voice that could be destined for greatness.

Joseph's Blog

May 16th, 2016

Quo Vadis Eurovision and other stories

Malta did not win the Eurovision but lo and behold the sun still rose and the island (the center of the known universe) still spun…

My two cents is that Ira Losco gave a really good performance and that the whole presentation was excellent. She shouldn’t have performed cause she is pregnant? Come off it – I have performed repeatedly with pregnant opera singers well into their 7th and 8th month of pregnancy and trust me when I say that rehearsing and performing for a full opera production is much more physically demanding than a couple of days at the Eurovision. Of course there are those who know much better than the undersigned and who went on to say that the presentation was a tad “camp”…oh the irony when one considers that the Eurovision is the campest of them all.

Meanwhile, this wouldn’t be Malta and the Eurovision wouldn’t be the Eurovision unless its politicized to the exhaustible hilt. The inevitable “mud slinging competition,” which we will see a lot of in the coming 22 months, ensued and even yours truly (inexplicably) ended up in the midst of the fray, in yet another “supernova” in a tea cup. The Eurovision suddenly became an interchangeable bullet to be used ad nauseam by both sides much like bitter parents who use their innocent children during disputes.  I have always found sycophants interesting, even amusing but they will not be getting the much desired Streisand effect from me, thank you very much. It is part of human nature after all to conjure conspiracies and we are not going to let the simple truth get in the way of some exciting and convenient fiction.

Speaking of “conjuring” is it me or is a company advertising real estate using a chap “connected” with the tragic and unnecessary death of an underage girl? It must be a clone or a”doppleganger”, otherwise this would be the epitome of bad taste and a 100 shades of wrong. Don’t get me wrong I am all for “second chances” and all of that but shouldn’t there be due process first? After all Lisa Marie didn’t get a second chance did she?