I first heard Piotr Beczala as Tamino in San Francisco back in 2007, which was not a particularly noteworthy performance. He was fine, he sang very well, and if he walked his way through a 20-year-old staging with little care for motivation, he was also slathered in white face paint and a crimson wig. A Boheme the following year was much more impressive, and by the time he had rescued the Met’s first HD broadcast of Lucia after Rolando Villazon went down in what seemed like career-ending flames, I was fully a fan.  

I would not, I suspect, want to hear him sing much Verdi at the moment, but his new Verdi album, just in time for the bicentennial, is decidedly forward-looking. I would assume he is eyeing a move into the heavier Italian repertoire. I have mixed feelings about this. Beczala’s voice is certainly piercing enough to cut through a Verdi orchestra, and he lacks the sluggish weight that sinks most tenors who specialize in this rep.

But he lacks the… well… oompf that I want to hear in a Verdi tenor, that steel-on-steel clang of a del Monaco or the pealing ring of a Bergonzi. His is a relatively lighter sound, and if he is heading into this repertoire, he needs to be careful. This recital, where he is provided able if not particularly remarkable support by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the excitable Baton of Lukasz Borowicz, shows that he is ready to meet the challenge of the great Verdi roles, but not necessarily ready to conquer them.

The first track, the Duke’s second act aria from Rigoletto (sans cabaletta, for better or worse) is a role he has already sung. Surprisingly it’s perhaps the least impressive track on the album. He sounds a little nasal, like he has placed the voice too high, and the phrasing leaves something to be desired.  “Ô jour de peine” from Act 4 of Les Vêpres is more congenial. He has extremely good French diction and he seems much more dramatically involved, and makes the ten-minute aria go by in a flash.

Things in general pick up after this. The role of Radames wouldn’t probably be a good fit for Beczala (at least, not at the Met), but he gives a very solid reading of “Celeste Aida.” He doesn’t take a diminuendo at the end, which is always disappointing, but the high B-flat is impressively blasted. The Macbeth excerpt is likewise well done, with really terrific sustained passages.

He’s at his considerable best in a beautifully phrased “Ingemisco” from the Messa di Requiem, and he uses his experience to good use in a highly dramatic rendition of Alfredo’s Act II aria and cabaletta. This is a role he has performed often, and unlike with the Duke his understanding of the character shines through. The record comes to life in a way that makes the proceeding tracks seem woefully lacking in fire, as Beczala spins gloriously legato phrases in “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” and draws real anguish out of “O mio rimorso”.

The highlights of the album are the tracks that show Beczala in duet. Like many artists it seems that he is at his best when he has someone to collaborate with, and he has booked some starry guests.  The long excerpt from Trovatore features Ewa Podles‘ spectral (and spectacular) tones, which lend Azucena a nearly supernatural element. Borowicz drives his orchestra into a frenzy during their duet, and it’s remarkably effective.

The Don Carlo “friendship” duet, which closes the album,  features a surprisingly effective Mariusz Kwiecien. I don’t think I’d want to hear either of these men in these roles in house (Kwiecen would probably be completely swallowed by the orchestra), but on record they blend wonderfully, and powerfully blast through one of the finest pieces ever written for two men. Beczala ends the duet with a stunning high C, easily the most impressive note on the entire disk.

On the whole the Verdi album is a curiosity that shows a tenor taking a dip into friendly but not particularly congenial waters. It feels like a test, and Beczala gets a solid, oh, B+ as a Verdi singer. At least at the moment. I’m curious to see if he can improve his grade.

Thankfully Beczala’s other disc, Heart’s Delight: The Songs of Richard Tauber is not only more interesting, it’s also clearly more personal. It takes a lot of guts to release an album in tribute to one specific singer (remember Domingo Sings Caruso?), especially one who is to this day pretty much the final authority in a particular genre. When it comes to Viennese waltzes and popular song; it’s pretty much Richard Tauber and then everybody else.

Beczala clearly loves Tauber’s music: In the five-minute preview that takes up half of the eye-rollingly light promotional DVD that was included in my copy (the other half is an forgettable music video for “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”) he discusses hearing it on a weekly basis growing up. He could have released this exact album with no mention of Tauber and spared himself the comparison, but mostly this album comes across as tribute, not as hubris.

He is again joined by Borowicz, who lavishes affection on each song, caressing each phrase in deliciously indulgent tempi. The Royal Philharmonic responds enthusiastically, and their talented leader Duncan Riddell contributes magnificent performances of the all-important violin solos. Anna Netrebko graces the album with a beautiful but not particularly specific performance of the immortal Merry Widow waltz, (“Lippen Schweigen”), a melody that Beczala accurately suspects most modern composers would “kill their father and mother to write.” Danielle Fally, a rising star in Austria and Germany who is little seen stateside contributes her pert soprano for a pleasant duet from Lehar’s Paganini, and the Berlin Comedian Harmonists provide period-appropriate back up on two tracks.

The album’s biggest issue is that there is very little variety in the songs. Almost everything is sweeping, sentimental, and in some derivative of 3/4 time. Songs tend to blur together. Among the numbers that stands out  is the march-time “Ob Blond, Ob Braun”, which is absolutely the most lively piece on the album, and a Ralph Erwin song “Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame” that gets a fun tango-y arrangement by Paul Bateman.

I’m not overly familiar with many of these songs, and disappointingly the handsome booklet includes no translations, merely an essay explaining the rationale behind each choice.  Throughout, the tenor sings with a gloriously full-throated sound, and milks every opportunity to toss out an A or a B with aplomb. It’s very clear how much this repertoire means to him, and he gives this (often slight) music its full desert.

Beczala absolutely knocks the most famous Tauber number out of the park, and moreover he does it twice. He opens and closes the album with a performance of Tauber’s signature tune, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s Das Land des Lächelns, singing it first in German, then in English. His English is charmingly accented and very carefully pronounced, but the German version may be among my favorite recordings of the standard. It is shamelessly emotional and ends with a particularly ringing A flat.

The album’s most serious misstep is a manufactured duet between the two tenors. Beczala’s interpretation of Tauber’s self-penned song “Du Bist Die Welt Für Mich”(possibly the schmaltziest song on the album) begins nicely enough, but then Beczala loops in Tauber’s own 1934 recording, trading phrases and joining in harmony with the ghost of his hero. This is lauded in the program notes as the crowning tribute to the departed genius, but it comes across as if Beczala is positioning himself as a successor of Tauber’s, not an admirer. But oh well. this is the only time things get self-indulgent, and it is a vanity project after all.

In any case, vanity project or not, these albums present a sensitive and talented artist showing off two little-seen sides of himself. One is more successful than the other, true, but in a profession where many singers sing the same 10 roles for life, it’s good to see Piotr Beczala branch out.