Where the boys are

When Norman Lebrecht is declaring on an almost daily basis that classical music is dead, it’s perhaps heartening that four of today’s prominent tenors have recently recorded what might be called fluff/vanity albums.

Joseph Calleja released an album of eclectic love songs, named (what else?) Amore. Hot on its heels is Vittorio Grigolo’s foray into an equally eclectic mix of religious songs, Ave Maria. On a slightly less fluffy level are Rolando Villazón’s album of Mozart concert arias, intriguingly entitled Mozart, and Juan Diego Flórez’s foray into the French spinto/heroic repertoire, named, naturellement, L’amour.  

These unimaginatively named albums each picture the featured tenor in an unimaginative glamour shot. If we were judging by looks alone, I’d say that Grigolo’s headshot is perhaps the cutest. Flórez’s glamour shot overshadows the left side of his face, and gives him an unexpectedly grim look.

L’amour finds the Peruvian tenor branching out from his usual bel canto repertoire. The album consists entirely of French language arias, and finds him venturing music associated with voices considerably heavier and more spinto-ish. Repertoire includes two arias from Werther, “Ah leve toi, soleil” from Roméo et Juliette, and most surprisingly, “O blonde Ceres” from Les Troyens. All of these are operas he has almost no chance of singing onstage. Other stuff is much more feasible for him—arias from Lakmé, La Favorite, Mignon, and La belle Hélène, for instance.0

When you hear Flórez’s voice and style in repertoire that’s a bit out of the way for him, you realize how much he’s one of those singers whose mantra is “find a few things you do well, and just do them really, really well.” By now we know what he does really, really well—he has almost unparalleled negotiating the fioratura of bel canto operas, and an endless supply of high C’s. He’s also worked out a stage shtick that’s not exactly acting, but usually includes some nice comic timing. As a result he’s been able to trek the world singing Rossini and Donizetti (and, to a lesser degree, Bellini) to almost universal acclaim. But when his voice is taken out of that comfortable niche that he’s carved out for himself, the limitations of his approach are more obvious.

His high C’s, for instance, are ringing and secure, but they’re also narrow and somewhat nasal in tone, without the trumpet-like ping of lirico-spinto tenors. Also, to achieve the effortless ease through the difficult coloratura, he’s kept his voice remarkably light and sweet, and his voice hasn’t thickened and darkened the way most tenor voices do with age.

The tradeoff is that he can’t color his voice in a dramatic enough manner for roles like Roméo or Werther. He sings everything with the elegance and grace with which he approaches bel canto operas, even when a more heroic, emotional approach is indicated. For instance, in Werther it’s all so pretty, but there’s not a drop of the dark, angsty sturm und drang a stage performance would require. “O nature pleine de grâce” sounds as sweet and sunny as “Ah mes amis.” It’s an interesting experiment but just that—an experiment. There are some lovely moments though—“Prendre le dessin d’un bijou” from Lakmé being one of them.

Calleja’s Amore is an odd album, mixing classic Italian love songs like “Ideale,” “Musica proibita” and “Non ti scordar di me,” with Andrea Bocelli (“Con the partiro”), Edith Piaf (“La vie en rose”), Josh Groban (“You raise me up”) and Tchaikovsky (“None but the lonely heart”) thrown in the mix. Calleja’s timbre is one of the most beautiful on the scene today, warm, vibrant, caressing to the ear. Sometimes he can look, and sound, astonishingly like a young Pavarotti. But he can be an occasionally stodgy, stolid performer in operas.

This stiffness affects his interpretations of these songs. It feels like he’s singing to a huge stadium, and the soupy, cheesy orchestral arrangements (courtesy of the BBC Orchestra) take away any sense of intimacy. I’ve started to realize that Calleja has a beautiful voice, but isn’t necessarily the most beautiful interpreter. For instance, in the execrable “You Raise Me Up,” one expects that Calleja’s version will be on a different level than Josh Groban’s, but give it a listen, and it’s every bit as bombastic as Groban’s.

Even in the classics like “Mattinata,” or “Ideale” where a simpler, more romantic style is needed, it’s surprising to hear Calleja repeatedly go for the huge ringing high notes and Les Mis stadium approach. As I said, one never tires of hearing the sound of his voice. But these songs are as much about style as voice, and Calleja has a surprisingly poor handle on the style. By the time the album chugs along to the inevitable “O sole mio” I was more than ready to move onto another “amore.”

Grigolo’s album of sacred arias has an unusually well-written and heartfelt essay inserted into the liner notes. The tenor explains, “I didn’t want to make an album of sacred pieces just because that’s what everyone in the classical world does.” He adds that he made the album because he got his start singing in the choir as a mere boy, and the album is a tribute to “all the people who helped me, all the priests who worked on my voice, to the hours we spent studying and practicing in those little rooms inside the chapel, and to all the incredible music we sang together.” It’s nice to hear a world-famous singer who hasn’t forgotten his humble roots.

He sings with an angelic sounding children’s chorus and the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta in surprisingly tasteful orchestral arrangements. And Grigolo takes this project seriously. There’s a duet with (ugh) Jackie Evancho (“O Holy Night”), predictable fare like Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” Verdi’s “Igemisco,” and Franck’s “Panis angelicus,” but also some little-known prayers. Grigolo sings all these without the sometimes over-the-top showmanship he applied to, for instance, his Met recital.

And his voice, as I said, is the real thing—maybe not as plush as Calleja’s, but just as warm and more expressive and oddly, more musical. Whereas with Calleja one feels he’s content to just put his beautiful voice out on blast, and let the audience bask in the waves of sound, Grigolo sings like a tenor who maybe was told many times that his voice wasn’t as beautiful as ______’s, and therefore works very hard to create vocal effects. Maybe too hard—if there’s a weakness with Grigolo, it’s that he’s one of those singers who likes to play with extremes in dynamics, to the point of fussiness. But I expected cheesiness, and usually have no special fondness for religious music, but found myself unexpectedly touched by Grigolo’s heartfelt album.

If Calleja’s album is all voice but no taste, Villazón’s album of Mozart concert arias is the exact opposite: all style and not much voice. Villazón’s vocal crises were well-known, and the voice that he has now is very different from the voice that thrilled opera fans about 10 years ago. Even with the close miking and short album (barely an hour of music), it’s obvious how limited in range and scope Villazón’s instrument is currently. The bloom in his voice is gone now—it sounds shrunk and worn. He gingerly attacks high notes and often prefers to let his voice trail off.

But what style! Villazón was always an engaging performer and recitalist, and the infectious happiness and joy of Mozart’s music practically bounces off his voice. There’s none of that generic lyric prettiness that Mozart tenors often feel they have to adopt—Villazón treats each concert aria, even the small ditties (such as the opening track,”Si mostra la sorte”) as a dramatic piece. The pointed diction is a joy to hear as well—you can transcribe every word he’s singing. And it’s heartening that when he could be releasing Christmas albums he’s singing stuff like “Va, dal furor portata,” a piece Mozart wrote when he was nine.

A highlight is a dreamy rendition of “Aura che intorno spiri”—no, the old Villazón voice isn’t back, but you realize the musicality never left. Another delight is the brief patter aria “Clarice e cara mia sposa” that’s less than two minutes in length but so vibrantly sung that you realize how flat and lifeless most patter is nowadays. Villazón does patter like the old-fashioned singers, with the natural up-and-down cadences of both speech and song. There are some reservations—sometimes his trill sounds great but other times it sounds like an awkward chug, and high notes, as I have noted, can fly wild. But this is an admirable vocal and artistic effort from a singer that many wrote off. Credit must be given to the sensitive conducting of Antonio Pappano with the London Symphony Orchestra.

So you have four albums by four current tenors. If I were to rank the tenors by pure vocal health, I’d say I’d put Calleja and Flórez on top, Grigolo in the middle, with Villazón sadly trailing behind. But ranking by artistic merit the order is reversed—it’s Villazón, then Grigolo, then Florez, and finally, with a huge gap, Calleja.