CD Review: Freddie De Tommaso’s ‘Il Tenore’

This Up-And-Coming Tenor’s Fine Talents Deserved Better in Mixed Bag Album

By Bob Dieschburg

It is something of a paradox that the proverbial dearth of tenors coexists with the announcement, in regular intervals, of some new vocal phenomenon which, after a solo recital or two, the recording industry decides to “crown before they are king” – to loosely and no less cynically paraphrase a famous saying by Mascagni. Yet too many are the instances in which the sensationalism of the media have contributed to the stellar rise and fall of young singers for it not to hold a grain of truth.

It is therefore with a considerable amount of skepticism that I have listened to Freddie De Tommaso’s recent album which, unfortunately, could not dispel the most pressing of my reserves, as the recurrence of stylistic flaws takes its toll on the enjoyment of an otherwise beautifully colored voice.

Acting the Part

The story of De Tommaso’s success in London has all the ingredients of a Christmas miracle when in December 2021 he not only saved the Royal Opera House’s production of “Tosca” by stepping in for the indisposed Bryan Hymel but collected rave reviews from international newspapers and magazines putting him on track for (early) stardom. Also in 2021, he released his first studio recital, “Passione,” a tribute to the music of Southern Italy which received widespread acclaim as a heartfelt homage to the tenors of the 1950s and 1960s.

With “Il Tenore” he now sets out to mark the voice’s transition into the spinto repertoire of Puccini and Bizet, that is the four operas of (in chronological order) “Carmen,” “Tosca,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Turandot.” He is supported by the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as soloists Natalya Romaniw, Aigul Akhmetshina, and, most notably, Lise Davidson who partner with the British-Italian tenor in an more or less generic way, precluding any of the duets from developing true musical or dramatic synergy.

For the overall impression is that of some kind of superficiality by which De Tommaso’s characters remain strangely interchangeable. His Don José shows the same stentorian antics as Cavaradossi or indeed Pinkerton – the latter sadly resisting the score’s many invitations to infuse the dramatic context with that bitter-sweet aftertaste of the American Lieutenant’s infamous seduction.

Take for example the line of “Un po’ di vero c’è” which is meant to be not only conversational in tone but also reflective, in hindsight, of Pinkerton’s moral carelessness as he “gently takes Butterfly’s hands and smiles” (to quote Puccini’s directions). The cruel irony of the situation goes unnoticed by our tenor who, with little dynamic variation, moves right on to the exclamatory call of “Vieni, vieni.” The result is that of a communicative letdown, as Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San are the one-dimensional, sometimes formulaic shadows of their natural selves.

“My adored Tosca!”

It may be asking too much of a recital like “Il Tenore” to accurately depict the psychological demeanor of its protagonists, yet the relative failure in doing so is not attributable to the tenor alone. I find it unreasonable, from a production standpoint, to devote half of the tracks to duets in which not one, but three different sopranos make their appearances! It increases the pervading sense of emotional detachment which, of all the album, makes the excerpts from “Madama Butterfly” seem the most ineffective.

On the other hand, the vocal matching with Lise Davidsen in “Tosca” works much better, not least thanks to the congeniality between the role’s temperament and the incisiveness of her timbre. It admirably balances the warmth of De Tommaso’s tone in the overlaps of “Certa sono del perdono” and “Mia Tosca idolatrata.”

Commendable is also the transition, though slightly aspirated, from “s’affisa intero” to “occhio all’amor soave” where the tenor shines in a rare moment of passionate intensity.

A Question of Style

For the rest, it is hard to get a fair measure of the tenor’s capabilities as both an artist and vocal technician. Listen to the rendition of “Non piangere Liù.” The Italianate “smalto” so characteristic of, say, Richard Tucker or indeed any of the all-time greats from the post-war era is by no means extraneous to De Tommaso’s take on Calaf’s first-act elegy.

Yet it also suffers from a counterintuitive break of the line when he transitions from “dolce mia fanciulla” to “m’ascolta,” hampered, it should be added, by the unimaginative treatment of the ritardando by which conductor Paolo Arrivabeni gives the melody’s dramatic force little chance to unfold. As for the semantic differentiation of the aria, it is unfortunate that the repetition of “questo” – after Calaf asks the slave girl Liù to take care of his father – does not receive the deictic stress that the context or in fact the orchestra’s rallentando call for.

Interestingly, those inconsistencies of style occur to a much lesser extent in the other Puccini arias. De Tommaso fashions his Cavaradossi as a muscular tribune rather than a sentimental idealist whose heroic tone does, however, forgo the opportunity to showcase some variety as through the use of rubato, particularly in “E lucevan le stelle.”

Those same features become redundant in the excerpts from “Carmen” where they do little justice to the notational intricacies of Bizet and the French operatic style in general. In “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée,” for instance, De Tommaso favors dramatic accent over the cantabile basis of the writing, throwing in veristic undertones ill-suited to the full spectrum of emotionality in passages like “qu’un seul désir” (marked “crescendo molto”).

From a personal standpoint, I do not therefore see the impending developments of his career tied to the French repertoire as much as to Puccini or indeed the operas from Verdi’s middle period (up to “Un Ballo in Maschera”) of which some live broadcasts can be found online.

A Promise for the Future

How then is “Il Tenore” to be situated? The cumulative effect of its shortcomings certainly prevents it from being as revelatory a presentation as the natural qualities of De Tommaso’s voice would have deserved otherwise. It comes as no surprise that even after the second and third listen there was still a sense of missed opportunities which could have been mitigated by focusing on the arias more than on the duets.

In my mind, however, there is no doubt that Freddie De Tommaso commands the skills to become one of the most viscerally exciting tenors on stage and the luminous brilliance of his “Nessun Dorma” – the best track of the album – more than supports this. But it is a promise for the future, in the hope of great things to come.


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