Recordings

The Maltese Tenor

The Maltese Tenor

Aleksandra Kurzak
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Marco Armiliato
1 CD / Download 0289 478 2720 7
Int. Release 20 May. 2011
The Maltese Tenor Sings Best-loved Arias and Duets
Album Website | Amazon | iTunes | Decca

 

The Maltese Tenor

It was summer 2010, and Joseph Calleja was making his role debut as Gabriele Adorno in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The house was Covent Garden in London, and his co-stars included a certain Plácido Domingo, now singing the baritone title-role.
Calleja had planned to study the challenging role of Adorno during the previous summer, but had lost that time preparing for another new role, Offenbach’s Hoffmann, which he had taken on at short notice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York after another tenor withdrew. “So, contrary to all my principles, I studied Adorno for just two weeks before I came to London”, Calleja explains, laughing. “I had no other time. But the voice was telling me it was ready for new things. And the minute I started on the piece, it just fitted into the voice as if I had been singing it for ten years. It was really one of those instances when it all just works.” The critics enthusiastically agreed: plaudits for Calleja not only matched those for Domingo himself, but in some cases even came close to exceeding them.

It’s a story that doesn’t just attest Calleja’s increasing prominence on the world operatic stage, but also his development as a dramatic artist. It’s now five years since the Maltese singer, now thirty-three, recorded his last recital album, The Golden Voice (a follow up to 2004’s Tenor Arias) – a long time to be away from the studio. “Back then I was an extremely young artist to be recording CDs at all”, he replies. “Of course I enjoyed the success, but I also had a long way to go. What’s changed is that I’m much more in control of my vocal facility and I have a maturity which only time on stage can bring to one’s art. If you know the role inside out, then you can find the right nuances and inflection much more easily.”

So one way into The Maltese Tenor is through the roles that Calleja now knows from the immediacy of live performance. There is, of course, Adorno’s aria “Sento avvampar nell’anima”, a late addition to the album, but one that Calleja felt was indispensable after his London triumph. It is still rarely performed outside of complete performances of the opera. “But any self-respecting tenor with a good voice should make it a show-stopper, because it’s so beautifully written.”

Hoffmann, another recently acquired role, is here too, as part of a quartet of French heroes that also includes Massenet’s Des Grieux (from Manon), Gounod’s Faust and, in a languorous duet with the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, the lovesick fisherman Nadir in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles.
“The next four to five years are ideal for me to explore these full lyric French roles”, Calleja explains. “There are so many opinions about what the ‘French style’ really is. The consensus is that the French line gives you less room to manoeuvre, to do your own thing as a singer. But the way I see it is through the Italian bel cantostyle. It’s what I try to do with Hoffmann, particularly in the middle of his aria, which is more lyrical.”

In the celebrated “Salut, demeure” from Faust, meanwhile – a role Calleja has sung in Berlin and would love to reprise – the challenge is to give fresh spontaneity to one of opera’s hit numbers. “This kind of aria is sung so much in concert that one tends to forget about what’s in the text, what the aria means in context.” The Pearl Fishers duet, too, followed live concert performances in Frankfurt starring both Calleja and Kurzak. “At the end of the evening we had a thirty-minute standing ovation… so I thought we had to repeat that duet on the album.”

A stronger dramatic take on these arias hasn’t diluted Calleja’s fidelity to that bel canto style. It’s one reason why his voice has often been described as “old-fashioned”: grace and elegance matched to a timbre that’s lighter than that of many other tenors of Calleja’s generation and flecked by a rapid, persistent vibrato. Early on in Calleja’s career, some found that intrusive. “For a period of time, my vibrato was very, very fast”, Calleja concedes. “But people fail to mention or think about how old I was at the time. If you listen to very early recordings of Jussi Björling, Enrico Caruso or Giuseppe di Stefano, they all have it. Eventually it settles down and matures.”

Calleja grew up soaked in the golden voices of the twentieth century and won’t be lectured on what they did or didn’t do to keep their voices in peak condition: listening to their recordings was a cornerstone of his studies in Malta with his childhood mentor, the tenor-turned-teacher Paul Asciak. “He sang concerts with Tito Schipa, he was friends with Franco Corelli… what he gave me is really the way they used to do things back then, based on listening to the old recordings. Some people say that when they’re preparing a new role they don’t listen to anybody else. I can understand that, but I don’t accept it! If you don’t listen to what your predecessors did before you, it’s like being a leaf on a tree and not knowing which tree you’re on.”

The old masters will be Calleja’s guide as he tackles the bigger, meatier Italian repertoire, too. It’s a new direction in The Maltese Tenor: not just Puccini’s La bohème, but Tosca and Manon Lescaut, too; Verdi, aside from Boccanegra, is represented by the more spinto (literally: pushed) operas Un ballo in maschera andLuisa Miller. Some would call Boito’s version of the Faust story,Mefistofele, from which Calleja sings the winsome “Dai campi, dai prati”, another step up altogether on the ladder to the big dramatic repertoire. “The voice should tell the singer by itself when it’s time to move on from La bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor to this repertoire”, Calleja observes. “Mefistofele and Un ballo in mascherain particular are both beautifully written, they’re all on the breath and the approach is still bel canto. Just because it’s Verdi doesn’t mean you have to shout your way through it.”

You could call this the wisdom of the mature Maltese tenor. Or, if you’re Joseph Calleja, you might simply call it gut instinct. “I’m sorry I haven’t anything more intellectual to offer you”, he laughs, by way of apology. “But I just want to sing as beautifully as possible – without losing my commitment to the work.”

Neil Fisher
2/2011 

Joseph's Blog

September 10th, 2014

A summer festival in Malta?

I was more than a bit amused to read some negative reporting re the fact that the government sponsored my summer concert. Hundreds of thousand of euros, if not millions, were thrown around  and some went as far to state that I was “on the take” and part of the hundreds of thousands were directed to my pocket. The claims are so ridiculous and unfounded that, to date,  I didn’t even bother to point it out. For those unfamiliar with our island, Malta is ferociously bi-partisan it is inevitable that, for some at least,  everything has to be turned into a political football. Others simply measure by their own yardstick. For the record I got no remuneration by the government, whether directly or indirectly, in the deal they made with NNG promotions nor form part of same company.  To my knowledge, the funds are wisely spent on the filming, editing and international distribution of the concert creating an incredible advert for Malta. Should the government sponsor such initiatives? Of course it should- as what better advertisement can Malta have to increase the much coveted “cultural tourism”?

In Malta we have the curse but also the blessing of being very small. So small in fact that you can walk from one end of the island to the other in less than a day. And what a walk that would be. Despite our small size, our location – smack in the middle of the Mare Nostrum  – made sure that every major civilization left its mark throughout our 7000 year history. Natural resources are pretty much non existent and even for fresh water we have to turn to the sea. Still our island nation enjoys the most important resource of all – its people. Once you remove our petty and constant bickering which (surprise surprise) usually revolve around politics, the Maltese are a force to be reckoned with and a nation that shy away from challenges we are not. Most of us are at least bi-lingual , hard working, resourceful and good hearted. Talent is also another virtue that this island has and never before  did we have so many young budding artists on the verge of an international career. When I was studying to be an opera singer there was literally no one else on the scene on a professional level bar Miriam Gauci. Nowadays we have close to a dozen. Clare Ghigo, Nico Darmanin, Cliff Zammit Stevens, Joseph Lia, Nicola Said and Marvic Monreal are already chasing their dream in conservatories and colleges abroad. Nico Darmanin in particular is already performing professionally and has already debuted at the Royal Opera House. This from a nation of 400,000.

Indeed it is a time of renaissance for at least classical music in Malta. So many festivals whether in Gozo, the place of my very first performances,  or Valletta. In fact it is time that the government notices the elephant in the room and launch THE proper summer festival our island deserves. The raw material is in place already it just needs to be coordinated and a month long festival is really within our grasp and no there is no multi million euro outlay as we have the necessary infrastructure in place already.  Our airport and airline are top notch and hotels comparable to the best on mainland Europe. All that is needed is that nudge, the concentration of the laser beam, the proverbial pulling of the same rope and Malta could host a festival that would rival any in Europe. This government has won with such a majority that it should really use that majority to implement changes that no one had the courage to do before. Redundant boards and committees should be restructured or removed altogether. Competent people should be given executive power to effect necessary changes and not waste their time and energies navigating the endless meanders of bureaucracy caused by useless boards.

 

Last but not least lets give Malta its cultural home back and move ahead with a National Theatre/auditorium. I hear there are great plans for the MCC, now is the time to move forward and turn these plans into reality. We have so much to offer and it would be a great sin to miss out on this opportunity. I dream of the day when Valletta will turn into a major and globally renowned  artistic hub. Believe me when I tell you that we have what it takes.