Concert review: Tenor Joseph Calleja grandly commanding but lacks colour

Joseph Calleja's voice has a grandly commanding quality, with sparkling delivery of words, scintillating precision of pitch, plenty of weight behind the high notes. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA


The Maltese Tenor

Joseph Calleja (tenor),

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, David Gimenez (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (January 10)

Spanish conductor David Gimenez put his mark on this drama-drenched, passion-permeated concert from the very first note.

Starting concerts of short operatic extracts with the Overture to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is common practice, yet, far from treating it as a breathless romp, making it sound like the soundtrack to a Keystone Cops chase, Gimenez infused it with subtlety, delicacy and discretion. He drew some impressive articulation from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra violins, and for much of the time they were pretty nearly in sync with the rest of the orchestra.

Gimenez approached the other orchestral interludes with equal restraint, and even Verdi's awkward Nabucco Overture and Mascagni's dire L'Amico Fritz intermezzo, had moments of endearing delicacy.

Accompanying the solo voice, Gimenez proved to be the master of restraint and malleability, happily ceding influence and power to the larger-than-life stage presence of the evening's star turn, Maltese Tenor Joseph Calleja. This was probably just as well since it is inconceivable that any stage could accommodate more than one musical personality of Calleja's ilk

Calleja strode on stage like some colossus, spreading his arms wide to embrace not just the orchestra and the audience but, it would seem, all of Singapore; showering us all with blown kisses and piercing looks. In terms of sheer physical presence, he is more than a match for the great legendary tenors of yesteryear.

His voice has a grandly commanding quality too, with sparkling delivery of words, scintillating precision of pitch, plenty of weight behind the high notes - all suitably emphasised by great, dramatic pauses and death-defying stretches of time - and enough power to fill a hall thrice the size of the Esplanade. But there was a hard edge to it that sometimes felt as if it could slice its way through a block of granite without breaking into a sweat. Beyond that, there was a lack of real colour or vocal variety. It was all just full-on delivery, with gestures serving to underline the enormous emotional extent of the programme.

Speaking to this newspaper on Friday, Calleja confessed his particular passion for Puccini, and he amply proved the point with a stirring performance of E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. This got the audience of opera buffs and tenor aficionados highly animated in the first half, while with one of his encores - the inevitable O Sole Mio - he whipped them all up into a true frenzy.

Only a curmudgeonly old critic might suggest that Calleja's habit of dramatically exiting and re-entering the stage for every single number was a ploy to milk yet more applause, but the increasingly enthusiastic ovations he elicited from the capacity crowd showed that, for all his over-the-top affectations, Joseph Calleja is on the way to becoming one of the great operatic tenors of our time.

This article has been edited for clarity.

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