Joseph Calleja at Symphony Hall by Norman Stinchcombe
By the time of his final encore the Maltese tenor had the audience in the palm of his hand. He had stepped off the stage and sang Edith Piaf’s torch song La Vie en Rose as he walked along the aisles in the stalls – serenading several misty-eyed ladies along the way. Corny? Schmaltzy? Perhaps, but how refreshing to see a classical artist really connecting with the audience. Above all it was sung with such tenderness and liquid charm – with the CBSO’s accompaniment sounding authentically rive gauche – that even a grizzled, cynical old critic had a lump in his throat.
The evening hadn’t begun well. Calleja had been ill earlier in the week and it was unwise to begin with Verdi’s Celeste Aida. Slightly unsteady and with wide vibrato Calleja sounded understandably our of sorts or, more worryingly, as if his essentially lyric tenor had suffered from singing heavier roles. The final B-flat was an unsatisfactory fudge. After that it was onwards and upwards. Calleja made his operatic debut at 19 singing Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth and his O figli, o figli miei had the right blend of plaintive tenderness and floated high notes. He proved adept at both Italian and French roles: Verdi’s slightly neurotic Alvaro, doomed Werther, Carmen’s erotically obsessed lover Jose. Best of all was Puccini’s Cavaradossi – a role only recently take on – a gorgeous E lucevan le stelle from Tosca. The CBSO, under Andrew Greenwood, provided luxury support and sounded idiomatic in the operatic interludes and overtures.