Cher Public


The Broad Stage presented Joseph Calleja in their Celebrity Opera Series May 10 with a concert called A Tribute to Mario Lanza. The Maltese tenor cites the famous matinee idol as an early inspiration from the time he saw The Great Caruso when he was 14 years old. 

It’s a testament not only to Lanza’s onscreen presence but the natural beauty of his voice that 50 years after his death he’s still leading young men to dream of careers in opera. Also since in his relatively short career he recorded nearly every popular song and operatic standard there’s plenty of repertoire to choose from. In fact Mr. Calleja already paid tribute with his 2012 CD release on Decca of the selfsame name.

Maestro Jader Bignamini, still enjoying our Southern California weather since the Netrebko/Eyvazov concert at the Music Center last week, led the highly skilled pickup orchestra the Broad gathered for the evening. They opened with the overture to Nabucco and gave it a stirring performance. Verdi’s martial timpani and horns following in step with the famous fantasies on phrases from “Va, pensiero.” The strings sounded especially vivid in the pizzicato echos back and forth from the cellos to the violins and violas.

Our tenor joined us and offered us Macduff’s famous plea for his lost Scotland, “Ah, la paterna mano” from the composer’s Macbeth. Mr. Calleja is well known in this role and did an exemplary job polishing Verdi’s long lines. He’s a singer who displays excellent training and moves straight through phrases with a real forward momentum that’s exciting. His diction is also superb in spite of the fact that he displays a generally light touch with consonants.

Next was the famous “Lamento di Federico” from Cilea’s L’arlesiana and he gave us a full throated rendition that was unfussy and lacking the usual tenor milking of audience sympathies. He even eschewed the optional Bb in the final phrase, keeping the mood solemn.

“E lucevan le stelle” from the last act of Puccini’s Tosca followed and here Mr. Calleja displayed the breath control of a master, holding the top A in the first big phrase for an impossibly long time and at a quivering mezzo-piano at that. After a suitably emotional finale our tenor retired from the stage to the bravo’s of the audience and Maestro Bignamini gave us a bright reading of the Act IV prelude to Bizet’s Carmen.

Our tenor returned refreshed and offered a solid performance of ‘”Questa e quella” from RIgoletto that made up for in blazing energy what it lacked perhaps in nuance. Then he ended the first half of the program with Don Jose’s impassioned romance, which seems tailor made for his gifts. His French is excellent I’m happy to report and although he may have misjudged the piano B-flat at the piece’s end his ardent phrasing and delicate close on the last phrase put the audience in the palm of his hand.

The second half concentrated on art songs and the more popular fare that formed the cornerstone of Lanza’s popularity. Two Tostis, the first of which was the bittersweet “A Vucchella”, found our tenor back on form with a stunning pianissimo as he compared his love’s little mouth to a withered rose and begged for a kiss. “Ideale’ revealed an even more poignant and intense reading.

Stefano Sonaudy’s famous “Vaghissima Sembianza” came next, with all its elegiac splendors made only more potent by a very tender and sensitive accompaniment from the string section. Mr. Calleja was pouring forth at this point in lavish voice with a sincere passion.

Then he welcomed a blazing dawn with Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata” and down shifted right into full blown 1950’s cinemascope glory with “Be My Love.” The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Mr. Calleja was far more at ease during the later part of the evening and he offered up five encores, each of which was rewarded with a new floral tribute passed up to the stage.

The gifted singer presented himself beautifully, in the traditional fashion, in an immaculately tailored set of tails with white tie and waistcoat. One felt the ghost of the immortal Mario was with us as Calleja introduced four members of the Lanza family in the audience.