Saturday, January 12, 2013


[NB: Tenor rave alert. If you don't like tenor raves, look away now.]


If Pavarotti had been making his Royal Festival Hall recital debut, you'd want to be there, and later you'd want to know you had been there, even if it was one of those multi-lollipop Gubbay gigs, and you'd go. And it might have sounded a bit like Joseph Calleja did last night. I've heard of great voices, but this is ridiculous.

A friend wrote to me afterwards wanting to know whether he projected OK in the RFH, which can be a tricky acoustic for voices. Projected? If they'd opened the doors, you'd have heard him all the way from Crystal Palace to Kenwood.

Take several thousand volts of personality, a tone so focused and powerful that it can flatten you in two notes, a technique so strong that you'd like to make musical instrument cases out of it, and the effortless confidence to convey passion for music and singing in a truly universal way - and that might just be the biggest opera star of the next few decades grinning at you off the platform.

You know how much I love Jonas Kaufmann and Juan Diego Florez, of course, and to think that we're lucky enough to have all these guys around to hear at the moment is gratitude-inspiring. Different types of voice, different kinds of personality, different purposes, different fates, all miraculous to hear. For a few minutes in the first half, with the Puccini arias from Tosca and the Flower Song from Carmen, I nearly dared to miss Kaufmann's subtlety, the emotional darkness, the variety of colour. Calleja is 50-degree Maltese sunshine all the way.

Yet the shadows were soon gone. Do we love him? Oh boy, do we love him. A bit of Mascagni, a spot of Verdi and some delicious Mario Lanza numbers by Brodszky, and the Golden Age of Singing is alive and well and sipping the conductor's bubbly for the 'Brindisi' final encore.

Spare a thought for the guest soprano, Indra Thomas - fortunate to share a platform with him, but unfortunate in that her vocal technique is nowhere near as strong as his, despite a lovely tone quality at its best in "Pace, pace mio dio" from La forza del destino (as usual, "the best is the enemy of the vaguely OK"). She seemed thoroughly caught up in the enchantment of Calleja's stagecraft, though, as he led her purposefully out of sight for the last phrase of 'O Soave Fanciulla', and who can blame her? The Philharmonia fizzed away happily under the baton of Andrew Greenwood and the evening flew by in a whirl of heady delights and Italianate winter sparkle.

You can follow Calleja on Twitter, where he is @MalteseTenor and describes himself as
"Maltaholic, opera singer, father to a princess and terminator, fly fishing enthusiast and St Emilion fanatic." And he blogs about life on the singing superhighway, here.

Above, hear "Joe" singing the title track from his Mario Lanza tribute album, Be my Love. Be warned, though, that listening to Calleja on disc is a little like watching a Wimbledon final on TV. You appreciate some of the marvels - but to grasp the full power of it, you need to be there...