With his new CD release for Decca, The Maltese Tenor, Joseph Calleja clearly declares his ascension to the top level of the world’s lyric tenors.  The 15-selection program shows that his plaintive voice has matured and clarified, his emotional understanding of the music has deepened significantly, and his artistry has moved to a higher level.  Calleja has reached the height of his powers, and that height is indeed formidable. 

The program is mostly the standards of the lyric tenor repertoire, with a few forays into heavier and deeper material (a particularly strong scena and aria of Gabriele Adorno: “O inferno! Amelia qui!… Sento avvampar nell’anima”).  But in every single selection, Calleja brings astonishingly elegant phrasing and a new clarity of tone that is uniformly infused with a lush beauty that signals the tenor’s growing confidence.  The fluttery vibrato that some listeners found objectionable has largely been refined out of the voice—it’s still there, but not nearly as intrusive as it once was.  And above all, Calleja’s singing is so filled with ebullience and sheer joy that I found myself unable to stop smiling through much of the CD.

The CD begins with “Che gelida manina” from Bohème, and if you are tempted to roll your eyes at this familiar piece being sung yet again—well, cynics beware.  This is the most beautifully sung and sensitively phrased rendition of the piece in recent memory.  Calleja sings Rodolfo with an ease and naturalness, high notes tossed of without strain, long phrases sustained and elegant.  The sound (forgive the cliché) is exactly what “liquid gold” was meant to mean.  The top notes are shimmering and gleaming, Rodolfo’s simple story told effortlessly and movingly.

Next is a less exciting “O soave fanciulla” with soprano Aleksandra Kurzak.  The fault here is Marco Armiliato’s insensitive conducting (though he does quite well with most of the disc).  The orchestra is simply too loud in the climaxes, forcing Calleja and Kurzak to become slightly shrieky.

After Calleja stirringly shows his dramatic chops with the Simon Boccanegra scena, we return to familiar territory with Hoffman’s Kleinzach aria and the two tenor arias from Tosca.  Kleinzach is bumptiously and cleverly sung with high notes that are ravishing.  Both Tosca pieces are exquisitely sung, especially “Recondita armonia”—Calleja does his absolute best in the more romantic and joyous arias.  “E lucevan le stelle” seems a step too heavy for him, but here again his excellent phrasing and variety of dynamics carry the day.

Tracks 7 and 8 transition to the Faust from Boito’s Mefistofele, followed by a rendition of Gounod’s  familiar “Salut, demeure chaste et pure” that is almost indescribably beautiful.  There are moments in this aria that recall Björling and early Pavarotti, but Calleja puts a personal stamp on the aria.  There is a longing vulnerability in this aria that he captures completely.  The same could be said for the two romances of Des Grieux from Act 1 of Manon Lescaut—charming, youthful, filled with the excitement of first love.

The disc finishes with Calleja moving from strength to strength with “Ah fuyez” from Manon, “Quando le sere al placido” from Luisa Miller, “Ma se m’e forza perderti” from Ballo, and a lovely duet from Bizet’s Les Pécheurs de perles, where Miss Kurzak really shines with her lush soprano.

Aside from the cacophonous “O soave fanciulla” and a few tempo issues, Armiliato does a fine, sensitive job in leading the nuanced playing of the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the fine singing of the Choeur d’hommes du Grand Theatre de Geneve, particularly strong in the Hoffmann music.

Mr. Calleja triumphs with this wonderful disc.  He has mastered the bel canto style, and has learned how to sing dramatic music without resorting to sobs or pushing. He has also found tremendous improvement in breath support—I defy you to find an unsupported phrase on this entire disc.   Listening to his current vocal estate is a sheer pleasure.  It is rare indeed to find a single singer’s disc without a single misstep or unwise choice.  The Maltese Tenor is an absolutely essential addition to today’s opera lover’s collection.