Joseph Calleja has generated a lot of favorable comments about his performances at the Met as well as at other houses. The unfortunate vocal collapse of Rolando Villazon has left many proposing Calleja for some of the roles that have been assigned to Villazon at the Met, but which the Mexican tenor is almost certainly going to be unable to tackle. I have yet to hear Calleja in the house. I thought it would be interesting to compare Calleja’s rendition of “Parmi veder le lagrime” from Verdi’s Rigoletto to those of a few other major tenors. This aria while not one of Verdi’s most popular is a great test of a Verdi tenor’s ability. The trick is to make it sound easy despite it’s subtle difficulties. It requires both declamatory force and a beautiful line combined with considerable dynamic modulation.
This scena is another example of Verdi’s penchant for having his villains sing like angels. The Duke is a monster who destroys every life he touches. But he gets the best music and sails through life without a care or a scratch. He’s a great example of life’s unfairness.
Parmi veder le lagrime, The Duke’s aria from Rigoletto
Ella mi fu rapita! She has been taken away from me! E quando, o ciel!... ne' brevi istanti, prima, When? o heavens, just before che un presagio interno a dark omen sull' orma corsa ancora mi spingesse! sent me rushing onto the trodden path! Schiuso era l' uscio! e la magion deserta! The door was ajar! The house deserted! E dove ora sarà quell' angiol caro? Where will that dear angel be now? Colei che prima potè in questo core She was the only one capable to kindle kindle in this heart destar la fiamma di costanti affetti? the flame of constant love! Where will she be? Colei sì pura, al cui modesto sguardo She so pure, that at her modest glance quasi spinto a virtù talor mi credo! I sometimes believe to have become virtuous! Ella mi fu rapita! She was taken away from me! E chi l' ardiva?... ma ne avrò vendetta... Who dared it? I will take revenge, Lo chiede il pianto della mia diletta. her tears ask for it. Parmi veder le lagrime I can almost see her tears scorrenti da quel ciglio, flow from her brow, quando fra il dubbio e l'ansia when torn between sorrow and anxiety del subito priglio, of the sudden danger dell' amor nostro memore recalling our love il suo Gualtier chiamò. she called out for her Gualtier. Ned ei potea soccorrerti, Nor could he rescue you, cara fanciulla amata; dear beloved... ei che vorría coll' anima Longing with his entire soul farti quaggiù beata; to make you blissful on this earth, ei che le sfere agli angeli he doesn't envy the angels in heaven per te non invidiò. when you are near. Translation by Guia K. Monti firstname.lastname@example.org
Lets start at the top. Here’s Caruso’s 1913 recording of the aria. The recitative which is at least as challenging as the aria is effortless as is the aria. On the same level is Jussi Björling’s 1945 reading of the piece. The bright distinctive timbre is instantly recognized. The transition from loud to soft is not made as easily as Caruso’s change in dynamics, but it’s a quibble. It’s brilliantly done. Richard Tucker’s performance of the aria in 1951 is on the same superior level as Caruso and Björling. These three versions set the standard for all who follow.
Luciano Pavarotti’s portrayal of Parmi veder le lagrime in 1966 shows his voice devoid of the mannerisms and defects that characterized the later part of his career. There’s the somewhat reedy sound and the easy top that was typical of his singing; it’s an outstanding rendition, but in my view not quite up to the level of Caruso, Björling, and Tucker. Placido Domingo’s singing of the aria in 1977 is first rate in every way. His sound is richer and his phrasing is sensitive. He eschews the customary interpolated high note near the end which virtually everyone else takes, but that is the way the aria was written.
Moving to the near present is Rolando Villazon’s singing of the aria in 2005. This full voiced rendition give no hint of the vocal collapse which was just a few years away and which may prove permanent. If Villazon’s voice is gone for good opera has suffered a great loss. His was the voice that seemed most likely to carry on after Pavarotti and Domingo.
Now to Calleja. First his singing of “Parmi…” in 2006. The voice is bright, but there’s still a trace of the rapid vibrato that I found so off-putting in his earlier work. Also the high B-flat at the end is very open and there’s a half hearted attempt at a trill (perhaps he intended a mere ornament) that he should have omitted or learned to do better. Here’s Calleja again just a few days ago. The excessive vibrato is just about gone. His sound is not quite as bright as earlier; it’s a little darker. The high note at the end is still open and the half trill is still there. The audience seems to like what it’s hearing, but on the basis of these electronic samples I think Calleja’s performance while very good is the weakest of the seven eight (see below for another entry) tenors presented. He’s 31 years old and likely close to as good as he’s going to get.
I’d like to hear him in person; an opera singer is hard to rate on the basis of recordings alone. Given the weakness of his competition I’m likely to get a number of opportunities to do so.
A reader alerted me to Piotr Beczala’s version of Parmi veder le lagrime. Made in performance in 2007 it seems to me to be the best of anybody now singing. The phrasing is elegant and his sound is beautiful. A pure lyric tenor he likely should not attempt anything heavier than the Duke. Beczala did not appear on the international scene until 2004 when he was already 38. Why it took so long for a major talent to get noticed outside of his native environment is hard to fathom. But he clearly is a first rate artist.