Charles Castronovo: "Dolce Napoli: The Neapolitan Songs"
Sweet Nectar. No texts. GPR Records 12012.
With his attractive bad-boy looks and strong voice, Italian–American tenor Charles Castronovo has risen quickly in the opera world as a marketable personality. In December, between Don Ottavios at the Met, he ducked down to New York's newest cabaret hot spot, 54 Below, for a series of shows devoted to the Neopolitan songs that are part of his heritage. Many of those numbers form the playlist for his first solo CD, Dolce Napoli: The Neapolitan Songs. It's a generous assortment of twenty tracks, seventy minutes' worth of music, backed by the atmospheric, accordion-and-mandolin-inflected arrangements of a five-man California band called Sweet Nectar.
A Neapolitan crossover record almost seems a rite of passage for tenors since the days of Mario Lanza. Most of these efforts are accompanied by huge, sweeping symphonic orchestrations that encourage tenorial bellowing. Castronovo was wise to take the intimate approach, and he joins easily with his small band of musicians to create a disc that is in line with his very personal take on this music. He respects the genre, stating in an essay in the copious accompanying booklet that he and Sweet Nectar are "lovingly exploring another generation's music, a music with a long blood line of tradition." Castronovo is proud of his immigrant heritage, and this collection is as much a tribute to his Italian ancestors as to their music.
No texts are provided, though in his booklet notes Castronovo supplies each song with a brief summary, and for a handful of them he breaks into a verse or two of translated English credited to Glen Roven. Even though he affects a bit of an Italian accent in these English passages, Castronovo's diction comes through with clarity no matter what the language.
A few of the selections are familiar, many of them less so. Fortunately we are spared "O sole mio" and "Funiculì, funiculà," but we are given welcomely restrained versions of "Core 'ngrato" and "Santa Lucia." There's also a hauntingly tender take on the pop classic "Anema e core," previously recorded by the likes of Dean Martin, Perry Como, Connie Francis and Dinah Shore. "Malafemmena," made famous by the comic actor/singer Totò in 1951, is treated as a slow tango with sweet crooning and diminuendos. Castronovo builds to a more operatic intensity in the little-known "Chiove," a moving lament that rises to a despairing climax.
One of the more unusual numbers is "Scetate!" a serenade with shifting harmonies and exotic underscoring that almost suggest an Arabian atmosphere. Matching it in that oddly Arabian sound is "Catarí," with its images of skies and storms. There are upbeat numbers as well, such as the delightful tarantella "Comme facette màmmeta" and the jaunty serenade "Luna Rossa." For his final song — an encore entitled "U Sciccareddu" that is Sicilian rather than Neopolitan — Castronovo accompanies himself on guitar.
Castronovo's tenor is not a sheerly beautiful one, but it is well-focused and manly in sound — a lirico with a baritonal tinge. He uses it well, controlling his dynamics and easily scaling down his tone to intimate, conversational levels when the music calls for it. In an age in which many tenors approach music of this nature with the subtlety of a Howitzer, that's a welcome change.
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