It was too little too late to redress the scant attention gives to Verdi’s bicentenary at this year’s Proms but the “Maltese Tenor” – Joseph Calleja – arrived with an eleventh hour offering of low-key Verdi arias and joining him was the Milanese orchestra bearing the composer’s name. Calleja’s growing legions of fans were much in evidence, of course, more Maltese than Italian flags, but what can they have made of the music stand which came between them and their hero? Five arias, one of which he will have sung a zillion times, and still – despite the presence of TV cameras – the music was laid out on the stand for security?
Admittedly Attila and Les vepres siciliennes are hardly common fair and one should applaud him for not only reaching for the operatic pop classics – but all were short and easily learned and none made the kind of demands that all of us were there to thrill to. Indeed he broke more of a sweat walking on and off between arias (why?) than he did singing them. The voice, as we know well, is gorgeous – a distinctive timbre, dusky in colour with that engaging flutter in the vibrato and warmth and girth throughout its compass; but all those stylistic nuances we have come to know and love were little in evidence. “O dolore!” from Attila was short and sweet, “À toi que j’ai chérie” from Les vepres siciliennes was suave and understated in the French manner; the apparent betrayal of Rodolfo from Luisa Miller was worn lightly, and even Gabriel Adorno’s despair (Simon Boccanegra) was somehow disengaged emotionally, diminished by being heard out of context with even the big surprise of the gently ebbing cabaletta (or what would technically be the cabaletta) sounding somehow too pat – correct rather than involving as singing.
The fact is that Calleja had chosen to give himself an easy outing and there was nothing here to stretch him emotionally or technically – except perhaps the pay-off top B of “La donna è mobile” and even that short-changed us with an early cut-off. If you can’t flaunt your technique in an exhibition such as this then when can you? No encore, despite the adoring fans begging for more. They were clearly hoping for something exciting to take home. No such luck. Back to the CDs.
The Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi had begun the evening on home turf with a spirited Overture to La forza del destino under their diminutive dynamo of a conductor, Xian Zhang. The rivalry between Don Carlo and Don Alvaro was tensely chronicled, premonitions of their final duet heard in unison oboe, flute and clarinet, Leonora’s prayer evolving from fragile violins to a sizzling tremolando-driven declamation. This was a drama they had plainly revisited many times – the smell of the theatre was in every bar.
So would they make something operatic of the concluding installment of this year’s Tchaikovsky symphonies cycle – Manfred? Well, the Manfred theme surged through the lower register of every string player briefly lending a touch of Tchaikovskian amplitude to a section otherwise well short of the requisite depth of tone. But in the main this was a pretty shabby showing from an orchestra doing far from what comes naturally. The way this music moves and sings felt as alien as it probably was; too much was tentative and half-baked and despite the vigorous efforts of Zhang to keep things together nothing could disguise the insecurity of it all, the countless instances of ragged ensemble – and one dramatic slippage in the finale. The Alpine fairy of the second movement was apparently wearing clogs – only the final page achieved a fleeting iridescence. And could Zhang not hear how ponderous and prosaic, enervating, her tempo for the pastoral third movement sounded?
For the second time this week – the other being the Oslo Philharmonic on Monday – an orchestra has brought an indifferent tam-tam to the party. At least there were no untoward organ bloopers. In fact the organ was just about all that was blooper-free.
Image: Joseph Calleja performs at the BBC Proms
Copyright/Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou