CD Review: Joseph Calleja’s ‘Ave Maria’

By Bob Dieschburg

It has been a while since Decca released a solo recital with Joseph Calleja. “The Magic of Manotvani,” some sort of a crossover, dates from 2020 while his last properly operatic release, “Verdi,” goes all the way back to 2018.

Yet the British label has all but forgotten about its spearhead tenor who, with “Ave Maria,” makes a beautifully toned but no less puzzling reappearance on CD. For his “Sacred Arias,” as the byline reads, is not an entirely religious program, nor is it operatic or, for that matter, Christmas-themed as the inclusion of “Silent Night” and Liguori’s “Tu scendi dalle stelle” might suggest.

Instead, four different versions of “Ave Maria” stand next to famous tenor arias from the Italian spiritual repertoire, “Ingemisco,” “Cujus Animam,” and “Domine Deus” and, somewhat inexplicably, “The Pearl Fishers” duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” sung with baritone Étienne Dupuis.

Its most interesting inclusion, however, is the Romantic warhorse “Allmächt’ger Vater,” in which Calleja is testing the waters for his upcoming performances of “Parsifal” in Bayreuth, if delivered as scheduled, that is.

A Wagner Debut

The result is alluring for sure, with the tenor’s well-rounded voice soaring over the orchestra. The diction, in German, has an Italianate ring that introduces a legato-heavy style of interpretation in line with Wagner’s inspiration from the tradition of grand opéras à la Meyerbeer. The emphasis on semantics, equally constitutive to his music, however, fades into the background.

Consequently, there is not the same solemnity to Rienzi’s “Hoheit, Glanz und Majestät” as in the known Kaufmann recordings and purists might object to this degree of lightheartedness or even nonchalance. Other Latin tenors, Domingo for instance, have been more successful in conveying the Wagnerian intent. But, I personally did not mind the style-agnostic choice of singing “Allmächt’ger Vater” in very much the same manner as Federico’s lament, so to speak.

It changes perspectives, for better or for worse, both here and in “Der Engel,” Calleja’s other venture into the Wagner repertoire.

Easy Listening

The voice itself has retained all of its remarkable smoothness. This is safe for its more robust tone in the lower register, and it still sounds very much the same as on his earliest recitals for Decca. This includes the transition from the middle to the head voice as in Verdi’s “Ingemisco,” on “absolvisti” and “exaudisti.” Yet, despite the technical refinement and control over his voice’s every inflection I sensed a lack of commitment, both in “Ingemisco” and in “Pietà, Signore,” to
convey the anguish of the sinner praying for forgiveness. Calleja delivers a very polished rendition which, in itself, is as flawless as it is unmemorable.

The Rossini tracks, with their allegro markings, suit the inherent brightness to his voice best. Both “Cujus animam” and “Domine Deus” are effectful demonstrations of the voice’s agility and extension to the top, even if the high D-flat on “poenas” is not as youthfully sustained as Pavarotti’s, to name but the most idiosyncratic version, nor does it have the same free ring. In “The Pearl Fishers” duet, on the other hand, there is little to cherish. Musically, baritone Étienne
Dupuis is no match for Calleja who dominates the unisono parts extensively. Whether this is an engineering issue, I do not know, yet the conducting as well does not serve the score whose melody needs time to unfold. At four minutes and 47 seconds, Sergey Smbatyan is on the faster side with most studio recordings being well north of 5 minutes.

Hail Mary!

As suggested by its title, the set of four “Ave Marias,” including one written by Andrea Bocelli, forms the framework to the album, starting with Pietro Mascagni, arranged by Mercurio and ending with Schubert. In the latter, of all tracks, a little carelessness sneaks into his impeccably wrought phrasing when Calleja, on the second repetition of “Ave Maria,” disrupts the line with an entirely superfluous sob.

It should not distract, however, from the charming delivery of the remaining songs, among which I would like to point out the Hail Mary after the intermezzo from “Cavalleria rusticana” and Christmas-themed, “Tu scendi dalle stelle.”

In short, “Ave Maria” is a fun and uncomplicated listen, unpretentious in its reliance on beauty of tone over questions of style or true dramatic expression. Whether this is enough for it to deserve special mention within the Maltese’s creative output, I do sincerely doubt.

But no matter what, its shortcomings cannot distract from the fact that Calleja, in the middle of his career, stands as a supremely gifted voice which proves to constantly reinvent itself. He is breaking into Wagner, while staying firmly grounded in the tradition of the Italian lirico.


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