Tenors have not always been the romantic idols of the operatic world. In Handel’s day, the castrato was the prized male voice, and in Mozart’s realm, baritones ruled the opera stage. In fact, the tenor who sang with a powerful chest voice in his topmost register only appeared around 1840 during the final flowering of Italian bel canto opera. And some music critics thought that new vocal sound was downright ugly.
The operas of Verdi and Puccini changed everything, however, and these composers regularly made vocally powerful tenors their male leads for whom sopranos pined and died. Since the dawn of the recording industry, star tenors have beome household words: one merely has to mention Caruso or Pavarotti—no further explication is required.
Among contemporary tenors most eagerly sought by the biggest international opera houses, Piotr Beczala has few peers. His recital for San Diego Opera Saturday (September 17) thrilled the Balboa Theatre audience with his trademark vocal brilliance and vibrant emotional presence. A cornucopia of both treasured and less familiar tenor opera arias tempered with a slighter selection of art songs opened the local company’s 2016-17 season on a sumptuously sustained high note.
For those who came to hear tenorial greatest hits, Beczala generously provided Don José’s effusive “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen, Cavaradossi’s poignant farewell “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, and operetta king Franz Lehár’s evergreen “Dein is mein ganzes Herz.” What impresses me is this tenor’s intense devotion to every expressive moment in the most familiar musical offerings. No matter how familiar the turn of phrase or declaration of love or of despair, Beczala’s urgent vocal presence makes that moment seem utterly fresh and vital.
One of the less celebrated arias from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, “Di’ tu se fedele,” brought to mind Beczala’s marvelous portrayal of King Gustavus III in San Diego Opera’s 2014 production of Verdi’s great tragedy based on a tragic incident in Swedish history, the assassination of the monarch at a masked ball. The crown jewel of a stellar cast, Beczala brought an amazingly compassionate nobility to the role, and this aria recalled that sentiment, even though when Gustavus sings this aria, he is disguised as a simple fisherman clandestinely visiting the fortune-teller Ulrica under the cover of night. As in most of Beczala’s opera selections, the soaring climactic phrases of the final cadence brought out the clarion splendor of his upper range, filling the hall with that unique tenor bravado that so endears singers of Beczala’s caliber to music lovers.
“Dei miei bollenti spiritu,” Alfredo Germont’s ardent, joyful second-act aria in Verdi’s La Traviata, gave Beczala another opportunity to express rapturous devotion capped with another glorious vocal climax. He proved equally compelling expressing the grim resignation of “Quando le sere al placido” from Verdi’s Luisa Miller, where his elegantly paced cantabile line hovered gently but fervently.
I particularly appreciated Beczala’s inclusion of vocal works by Antonin Dvořák: four songs from his 1880 cycle Gypsy Songs and the aria “Vidino divná” from his opera Rusalka. In North America, Dvořák is largely remembered as a composer of symphonies, but he also wrote 14 operas, of which Rusalka is most frequently performed. In the Prince’s Aria from Rusalka, we heard the ingratiating baritonal warmth of Beczala’s mid-range, and in the Gypsy Songs we experienced his sharp characterization of the Roma’s defiant pride. Although Beczala’s first Gypsy Song was the chestnut we know in English as “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” hearing it in the original Czech eased some of the sentimentality we too easily attach to that song.
Arias from Jules Massenet’s Werther and Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, added Gallic intensity to the tenor’s varied program, but the German Lied “Cäcilie” by Richard Strauss struck me as the program’s only false note, lacking in specific characterization.
Pianist Martin Katz, the dean of American accompanists and celebrated master teacher of the art of keyboard accompaniment, provided astute and unfailingly sympathetic support to the soloist. His performance of the many orchestra transcriptions—especially the Dvořák and Massenet arias—could easily serve as a master class in bringing out counter themes and leitmotivs in complex scores without distracting from the vocalist. Both Beczala and the audience gave Katz hearty recognition for his sophisticated contribution to the recital.
The enthusiastic audience was not about to let Beczala go without an encore or two, and he graciously provided three: Salvatore Cardillo’s “Core ‘ngrato,” a Polish song by Miczyslaw Karlowicz, and Robert Stolz’s “Ob blond, ob braun, ich liebe alle Frau’n.”
The 2016-17 San Diego Opera season continues with a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in the San Diego Civic Theatre from October 22 – 30, 2016.