Joseph Calleja: "Be My Love: A Tribute to Mario Lanza"
BBC Concert Orchestra, Mercurio. Texts in Italian, Spanish, English and French. Decca B00017438-02
Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja is a bit of a throwback — but not to Mario Lanza. With his light, free voice and his rapid vibrato, he sounds like singers from more than a hundred years ago. Fernando De Lucia comes to mind, as does the young Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Vibrato is very much a matter of the listener's personal taste, and for those who prefer less tremolo in the tone, appreciating an artist such as Calleja takes a bit of work.
Nonetheless, this tribute to one of Calleja's favorite singers may be enough to win him quite a few converts. Calleja does not possess the booming size of Lanza's lirico spinto, but studio microphones fix that easily, and conductor Steven Mercurio's arrangements — many based on the original RCA Victor orchestrations — are fabulously full-blown mementoes of a vanished musical age. It's undeniably thrilling to hear lush 1950s favorites such as "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine" performed by singer and orchestra with such freedom and refulgence.
In numbers such as these and "Serenade," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and that gloriously kitschy old wedding chestnut "Because," Calleja sings in admirably clear though charmingly accented English. "Arrivederci, Roma" has an intro in Italian and the familiar chorus in English, with Calleja soaring nicely into his upper range and climaxing with a lovely diminuendo. "The Loveliest Night of the Year," one of the songs in Lanza's The Great Caruso, is based on the familiar waltz "Over the Waves," which has been heard on the soundtracks of a thousand Popeye and Looney Tunes cartoons. Calleja delivers it with full investment and no apologies, aided by the sweeping arrangement and Mercurio's equally effusive conducting.
Operatic selections include arias Calleja may never be destined to sing, and it's nice to have these renditions thanks to modern sound engineering. In "Nessun dorma," we get the opportunity to hear the opening lines sung for once in light, soft, dreamy tones that match Puccini's accompaniment. Calleja has no trouble punching out the forte high notes of the climax; the same holds true for his "Cielo e mar" from La Gioconda. The sense of charm and longing he expresses in "Amor ti vieta," from Giordano's Fedora, leaves one wishing it was not one of the shortest tenor arias in opera. The "Addio alla mamma," from Cavalleria Rusticana,and "Vesti la giubba," from Pagliacci,are strong on drama and short on bathos, and the truncated orchestral postlude in the latter permits no room for sobbing, for which we can be grateful. Calleja struggles with the French in Don José's "Air de la fleur," but he sings the climax properly, making a decrescendo on the penultimate phrase instead of belting it as so many tenors do onstage.
Interspersed are lighter Italian songs by Rossini, Tosti and others. Most memorable is the haunting "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," by Cesare Andrea Bixio, an international hit during the mid-twentieth century but now almost forgotten. It's good to have it back.
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