Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Tenor Wars: Tenors, Tenors, Tenors!

The Tenor Wars: Tenors, Tenors, Tenors.

All one needs to do in circles operatic is utter the word “tenor” and within minutes a more bitter and far bigger argument will arise than any of Callas’s callouses or Battle’s battaglia. One will hear diatribes aplenty: there hasn’t been a decent tenor since Tucker; Giordani is Caruso’s successor; Boccelli is Pavarotti’s heir apparent and even more opinionated and insane squabbles, all argued with conviction, passion and by all manner of lovers of tenorial splendor.

I’m going to mention a few favorites and not so favorites of my own to get the ball rolling, but during the bitter cold arctic blasts I’m certain we’ll generate some heat. Hopefully we won’t start a forest fire! I DO ask that we keep the discussion (at least as much as possible) to the current crop of tenors and not wax reminiscent on our favorites of yesteryear . . . we do enough of that already!

Let me begin by stating how LUCKY we are to have Roberto Alagna singing today. He is, by far, my favorite tenor in (most of) the repertoire he makes his career in. Once again, as example of how differently we all hear, I’ve recently read reports of the same performances I’ve heard where Alagna’s voice is described as “dry . . . tough . . . leathery . . . out-of-tune.” I find his sound, rich, slightly muscular at times, but with a touch of honey. I find him also (ducking here) more consistent in performance than Giordani who, when he’s on is absolutely thrilling but when he’s off – YIKES! Very few times has Alagna disappointed me. I also don’t get the mean spirited comments about his acting or stage presence: I almost always find him to be a compelling actor onstage and think he looks fine, handsome even. His Don Carlos (still a major course of criticism from his detractors) remains one of the finest complete performances I’ve seen – a total, nearly Shakespearean performance that, no matter how many times I watch it, continues to leave me in absolute awe. His Werther does the same thing (and, having heard excerpts, I still anxiously await the DVD release of him and Kate Aldrich in this opera).

It was almost exactly two years ago I got blasted for “sticking up” for Alagna after his unfortunate behavior at La Scala where here, and elsewhere the general consensus seemed almost to be the operatic equivalent of “you’ll never work in this town again.” One lister wrote that just as Callas was, Alagna’s career will forever be defined by his walkout. Another told me that I was, like Mr. Alagna himself, “full of bullshit.” LOL – Oh, c’mon, already! Yes, it WAS an ugly incident, poor judgment on his part – though I remain convinced his health was more of an issue than it was made. We seem to conveniently forget the man had, months before, been hospitalized only months before and in critical condition with highly unusual and severe complications due to hypoglycemia. Typical of some of the nastiness thrown his way I recall someone here writing something like “For Christ’s sake, couldn’t he have just eaten a candy bar?”) He had collapsed onstage, had to cancel a boatload of engagements while he was hospitalized. Angela cancelled her engagements to remain by his side causing further brickbats to be hurled at her. He can be a bit much in his interviews and defenses of his wife (which I understand, even while balking at some of them), but when the man steps onstage: I’m nothing but 100 percent pure fan. I love him.

While Juan Diego Florez gets the lion’s share of tenorial praise these days, I’m one of the few who just doesn’t quite understand his phenomena. To my ears, it’s a pleasant, slightly distinctive, but not particularly beautiful sound, with (again to my ears) very little color or range of dynamics to it. Clearly my ears are out of synch with the rest of the world (and I realize that it is MY problem) but so many of his performances sound the same. When I hear Almaviva, Ramiro, etc., I want a (pardon the expression) ballsier sound. Having heard Richard Croft in Barbiere, Cenerentola, or d’Ory, this is by far the masculine yet “refined” sound I want in this music (likewise Croft’s Handel and Mozart). Of the younger tenors, I find Lawrence Brownlee a far more appealing sound in the similar repertoire as Juan Diego. Trust me, this is no bash of Florez, I’ve enjoyed a number of his performances both live and in recording/DVD, but he’s simply not my favorite type of singer. (I can hear already the thwack of the slings and arrows!)

Speaking of Croft, he remains, probably, my favorite tenor working today, period. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve moved away from the warhorse operas (which I still adore, but generally prefer singers no longer available in many of those roles). With Debussy, Handel, and Mozart high among my favorite operatic composers, it’s only natural Mr. Croft who excels in the music of all three, should keep me plenty happy. Also his recent efforts ranging from Gluck to Glass these past few seasons have been a major cause major celebration in my opinion. His Gandhi in last season’s “Satyagraha” was one of the most beautifully, ethereal and spiritual experiences I’ve ever had in an opera house.

Then there is that Maltese fellow: Mr. Calleja. When I first heard his voice I thought I was listening to a cleaned up recording from a century ago – it’s THAT kind of sound. While I’ve thrilled to his Rigoletto Duke several times now, it is in French music that I want to hear him most. The first time I heard his “Ah ! lève-toi, soleil!” I swear the ghost of Vanzo had entered my home. On its heals was a “Pourquoi me réveiller” that put me into a swoon, so fabulous it was. (I rarely use the word “fabulous” but it is entirely appropriate here.) Everything I hear from this singer is infinitely appealing and sung with an almost unlikely mixt of chutzpah and grace. The sound of this tenor is, in my opinion, among the most beautiful before us today and I cannot wait to see and hear more from him.

We have also a whole crop of young/youngish tenors in an almost endless parade of debuts singing major roles like Romeo, Lensky as well as other appropriate works by Handel and Mozart – and they’re singing all over the place: Joseph Kaiser, Sean Panikkar, Gordon Geitz, Brandon Jovanovich, Brad Cooper, Eric Margiore – all of them have star potential and have shown there is a place for them on the world stage. Then there are the major players who don’t get the recording contracts or press coverage and whose names don’t pop up with great frequency here, yet who have garnered fans the world over – tenors like Tom Randle, Garrett Sorenson, Kurt Streit and a host of others who have thrilled and entertained me as much as anyone has in an opera house.

A number of AYT’s (“aging young tenors”) have risen – rather quickly – to superstar status, but whom we can still see (and hear) developing before our eyes and ears. One of these is fast becoming a favorite of mine, the German Jonas Kauffmann. With matinee idol looks and a dark-tinged voice, he keeps proving himself over and over again in a wide-ranging repertoire that almost always seems not tailored to his voice, but which he tailors his voice to. I like this idea of “serving the music” and Kauffmann seems always to do precisely that. Most recently I have enjoyed his Covent Garden Don Jose to the unexpectedly thrilling Carmen of Antonnacci. Kauffmann seems poised at the ready to move into the lighter-fached Wagnerian roles, such as Lohengrin and I think, with his intense, introspective way of approaching roles, will be a marvelous Parsifal before we know it.

Rolando Villazon had one of the most meteoric rises to fame of any singer in recent times, and while it was not entirely undeserved, it thrust him into a dangerous sphere of too much work, tackling roles that are not 100 percent grateful to his still very lyric voice and, along with several other issues, sidelined him for the better part of a season and had fans concerned about his return which has been (wisely) a cautious reentry. Not cookie-cutter tenor handsome, Villazon has an odd exoticism to his look which he makes work for him meaning no lack of female friends and fans. Still, when he first came onto the scene I noted a seemingly strong musical and work ethic that seemed to lapse a smidge once he began filling his engagement book, jet setting ‘round the world when rest and study might have been better friends to him than adulation and praise (which would have come to him regardless). He is an exciting, likeable and immensely convincing stage personality and seems always to be a passionate actor. I cross my fingers that this one will get it all right and be around to enjoy and admire for a long, long time.

I can’t not mention Matthew Polenzani. A smaller-scaled lyric, there is still some nice weight to his sound, but it is not a big sound and I have worried about him in certain roles. A recent run of Traviata was the cause of concern for a number of opera lovers, but personally, while it will probably never be his greatest role, I found myself far more moved than I imagined – not to mention how much beauty and musicality he infused the young Germont with. His Romeos of the past several seasons for Chicago and later, the Met, were never anything less than breathtaking.

Another tenor in the Richard Croft mold is the British born, Toby Spence. Spence has the same flexibility and warm, eternally youthful sound as Croft, along with that amazing facility for coloratura. I have heard him in a number of roles, and seen him in several and he has that relaxed excitement unique to certain British Isle tenors that always straddles the line between careful thrill and throwing all caution to the wind.

I’m going to call this “Part I” – because there are so many more tenors who keep popping into my head. Let the games begin!


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