The Diva and Divo Discs of the Year
Yesterday, in Jeff Lunden's otherwise apt Morning Edition profile of the great cabaret singer Barbara Cook, New York Times critic Stephen Holden praised the deepening of Cook's voice over the years -- and said the stupidest thing I've heard from a music professional (yours truly excepted) all year:
"Her voice having gone from a soprano to an alto, really - cause she's scaled down all her keys - helps her, because high voices really don't express much. They're just beautiful and phenomenal. And it's low voices that you can really get into the dark side of things, or whatever you want to call it."
Now he tells us! I mean, think of all the hours we've wasted over the years being deeply moved, or so we thought, by sopranos and tenors of all genres. Really, to respond verbally with counterexamples to Holden's howler would be to take it more seriously than it deserves. Better, as always, to let music come to the rescue. And whenever the scene involves a rescue, they usually don't bring on the altos and basses. So rushing in to save the day, or at least the reputation of those whose voices climb above the staff, are soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Joseph Calleja.
In his recital CD "The Maltese Tenor", the 33-year old Calleja (who really comes from the island nation of Malta) covers a pleasant if not exceptionally imaginative selection of Italian and French arias. Most novel is the beautiful extended Act II duet of Leïla (sung by the Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak) and Nadir in Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. What stands out is the fine quality of Calleja's voice, a tenor of warmth and lyricism more associated with "golden age" voices like Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci (click on their names for samples) than with heftier tenors like Del Monaco, Bergonzi or di Stefano (Pavarotti was sui generis). As he told NPR in a recent profile, Calleja spent hours with his teacher listening to the old masters, and learning from them how to spin a phrase with proper legato (smoothness of line). But let's not ask too much, too soon from Calleja, lest he lose too quickly the freshness that makes him so appealing. In the same profile, critic David Patrick Stearns rightly points out that Calleja's may not be a voice best-suited to the 3,600-seat Metropolitan Opera, at least at present. We'll be listening with interest as he develops.
Usually, my critical antennae twitch whenever a new "tribute" CD comes my way. You know the type -- the CDs where some contemporary artist in whatever genre covers the repertoire, and basks in the reflected glory, of some past legend. Too often, the present-day artist has no business placing him/herself in the legend's lineage. But not in the case of our Diva CD of the Year, Angela Gheorghiu's "Homage to Maria Callas". If any soprano has the talent, the temperament, and the sheer chutzpah to welcome comparisons to "La Divina", it's the 46-year old Rumanian. The thirteen arias cover the gamut from bel canto to verismo, and feature such famous Callas roles as Medea, Marguerite, Carmen, Dalila and Violetta. Throughout, Gheorghiu leaves no phrase under-interpreted, no emotional heart-string unpulled. And the voice! She's fabulous, she knows it, and she knows you know it too. That's what Divas do, and why we worship at their feet. Take that, Stephen Holden! I'll bet you'll come back begging for more.