The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Is Joseph Calleja — “The Maltese Tenor” — the next Pavarotti?

October 23, 2011

By Jacob Stockiinger

We are coming into Opera Time in Madison. Next weekend sees the University Opera’s production of Puccini‘s evergreen “La Boheme” for three performances. And the week after that, the Madison Opera gives two performances of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”

So it seems a good time to talk about –what else? — opera.

Ever since famed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti (below) fell ill and then died, the opera world has been wondering who will be The Next Pavarotti. 

Being named The Successor to such a superstar seems, at times, like the kiss of death or  the curse of King Tut.

First, there was Salvatore Licitra (below), who actually substituted for Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere to critical acclaim. His career started to take off, but the shadow of Pavarotti seemed to haunt him and disappoint his listeners. He needed to be himself. Then, alas, he died last month at age 43 after a motorbike accident in Sicily.

Then there was the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon (below). He too sounded very promising. But his career got ahead of him. He hurt his voice and apparently experienced some emotional, nervous or mental problems while coping with his accelerated career. You don’t hear a lot about his these days, though one hopes that will change for the better.

The latest is Vittorio Grigolo (below), an Italian who is movie handsome (unlike Pavarotti) and who seems bold with the singing and acting talent to go with his looks. But it really is too early to tell. Even Pavarotti wasn’t Pavarotti this early in his career. Besides, Grigolo strikes me more as an Ezio Pinza or Mario Lanza type, which is no small achievement.

If you are looking for me to name Jonas Kaufmann (below), the young German tenor, you will be disappointed, I think he may well be the single most important tenor voice to emerge in the past 20 years, or more, after Pavarotti and Domingo. But his specialty is not the Italian lyrical style and “verismo” repertoire, though he can sing it just fine, as his latest solo CD demonstrates. He is fabulous at everything, singing and acting. But it is especially Wagner and meatier German roles that show him off to his best advantage.

These days, the candidate seems to be Joseph Calleja (below), who is being marketed as The Maltese Tenor because he hails from the small island of Malta in the Mediterranean. (CORRRECTION: ORIGINALLY I SAID THE RUSSIAN WRITER ANTON CHEKHOV RETIRED AND DIED IN MALTA. BUT A READER POINTED OUT CORRECTLY THAT HE RETIRED TO YALTA AND DIED IN GERMANY. MY APOLOGIES TO ALL FOR THE INACCURACY. I REGRET THE ERROR.)

At this point, I have no way of predicting where his career will go. But on the basis of his latest album from Decca – his fourth (below), proving that he is no upstart — he has the necessary magic in his voice.

When he sings the opening track, from “La Boheme,” I get the kind of goose bumps that only Pavarotti – not even Placido Domingo – can give me in the greatest arias by Puccini, Verdi and others.


I think the NPR classical blog meister (check out “Deceptive Cadence”) Tom Huizenga puts his finger on it when he talks about the quality of Calleja’s old-fashioned but deeply appealing vibrato and how it takes us back to the Golden Age of great tenors, including Caruso and Bjoerling.

But it also has to do, as it did with Pavarotti, with the tonal quality and effortless ease Calleja shows in the high note range where, I am convinced, our human nervous system is programmed to respond in an almost an emotional, almost bestial way. That is where tenors break your heart and bring tears to your eyes.

Anyway, here is a link to Huizinga’s outstanding review that features several sample tracks so you can see if he has The Right Stuff.

Listen for yourself to his work (including a Pavarotti trademark aria, at bottom).

Decide if you like him and what he does to you.

Then tell me what you think of The Maltese tenor.

And whether you think he might indeed be The Next Pavarotti?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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