Concert Review: Joseph Calleja — A Tenor to Love

Joseph Calleja’s voice is absolutely gorgeous, and he has been compared to the great Golden Age tenors Gigli and Caruso.

Photo: Robert Torres

Tenor Joseph Calleja and accompanist Kevin Miller in a Celebrity Series recital Friday night at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

By Susan Miron

No doubt about it, audiences love tenors. At the moment, the lyric tenor who is receiving a massive amount of attention and adulation is “The Maltese Tenor,” also known as Joseph Calleja, now all of thirty-six. Calleja made his Boston Celebrity Series debut as a recitalist last Friday in Jordan Hall. It was an odd affair, although only a few of us seemed to think so. Most of the listeners (the downstairs seating was packed) adored him and his show, um, recital.

An outgoing stage personality, Calleja enjoys making small talk and cracking jokes with audience members before he sings. On Friday, his recital consisted of ten numbers – all but one very short, so his commentary from the stage stretched out the recital’s length. Still, the first half lasted all of fifteen minutes (no doubt a diminutive record) before a 20-minute intermission. (No, he didn’t need to change costumes. He wore a simple black jacket.) The second half lasted about the same brusque length of time.

Unsurprisingly, he added five encores (all short) to the evening and seized the opportunity to stroll through the audience, singing a soulful rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” Most of these ultra-friendly tactics have been used before, especially Calleja’s repertoire of familiar songs and very popular opera arias. The new twist: he and his excellent accompanist, Kevin Miller, left the stage after each short piece. I had never seen this occur before in a voice recital.

Calleja’s voice is absolutely gorgeous, and he has been compared to the great Golden Age tenors Gigli and Caruso. (He portrayed the latter in the 2013 film The Immigrants.) The adjectives sunny” and “sunshine” show up with regularity in many of his reviews, referring to his voice, but it also describes his personality. He has stolen the hearts of opera listeners in the Metropolitan Opera and in opera companies and stages throughout Europe. At his best, Calleja’s lush tenor voice is thrilling to hear – he will doubtless be one of opera’s superstars in coming decades.

An exploration of loneliness, Tchaikovsky’s “Net, tol’ko tot, kto znal,” Op. 6, no. 6 opened the recital on a serious note. One of the highlights of the very brief first half was the dramatic aria “Pourquoi me réveller” from Massenet’s Werther, which the audience loved. After this came the charming “Il était une fois `a la cour de’Eisenach” from Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, whose fast and fun piano and voice parts tell of a monster named Kleinzach who makes the sounds “flick-flack.” Calleja proved that his chameleonic voice can project misery, joy, infatuation, and humor.

The lusciously sung second half began with Stefano Donaudy’s “Vaghissima sembianza” and Franceso Paolo Tosti’s “Ideale,” which is the favorite song of Calleja’s teacher and mentor, now 92 and in the hospital. Dedicating this performance of this piece to him no doubt motivated an especially moving performance. “Lamento di Federico” from L’arlesiana by Francesco Cilea inspired, for me, the standout vocal of the evening. Calleja is an expressive actor as well as singer — the audience cheered wildly, like a good opera audience.

Guiseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth, which Calleja sang in 1997 when he was 19, was represented by Macduff’s tragic aria, “Ah, la paterna mano.” The printed recital program ended shortly after 9 p.m. with “E lucevan le stelle,” the celebrated heartbreaking tenor aria from Puccini’s Tosca.

Calleja seemed happy to continue and performed five encores, including one that Plácido Domingo made famous, “No pueder ser” from Tabarnera del Puerto by Pablo Sorzábal, along with Tosti-D’Annunzio’s “A Vuchella,” and Edith Piaf’s extremely famous “La vie en rose.”

Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” would have been a nice way to end the concert, but Calleja went for the over-performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Unfortunately, the tune has been sung thrillingly and memorably by both the great Bryn Terfel and Renée Fleming. As far as this listener is concerned, they own it. And of course they recorded it with orchestra, so that the piano sounded like, well, a piano reduction.

This said, Calleja comes across as a really nice guy and he proffers the kind of tenor singing – call it rich, lyric, thrilling – that will doubtless leave most audiences swooning.

A reviewer’s lament: I have begged The Celebrity Series to include program notes. I am sure many besides this reviewer would like to know about the pieces and the composers. All we get are the composers’ dates – and that is not enough. Please rethink this policy, Celebrity Series!

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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