The latest installment of “Met Stars Live in Concert” brings two singers: Diana Damrau and Joseph Calleja. They are stars indeed. She is a German soprano, and he is a Maltese tenor. He had a hit album about ten years ago: The Maltese Tenor.
My current “chronicle” in the magazine covers these Met livestreams—three of them: featuring Jonas Kaufmann, Renée Fleming, and (together) Aleksandra Kurzak and Roberto Alagna (who are married). Earlier, in this blog, I had covered Lise Davidsen and Joyce DiDonato.
Damrau and Calleja come to a world public from the Royal Palace of Caserta, in Italy. Specifically, they are in the Palatine Chapel, within the palace—fancy digs. They are accompanied by a pianist, Roberto Moreschi, a Neapolitan who has long worked in his city’s opera house, the Teatro di San Carlo.
The two singers—Damrau and Calleja—are not just excellent singers but outstanding personalities. For years, I have said that Damrau has a “secret ingredient”: adorability. Also, many of us have applied the word “delicious” to her—three d’s: “delicious Diana Damrau.” Both of the singers have enviable voices, and solid techniques, and ample musical intelligence. Then there are intangibles, e.g., charisma.
Ordinarily, these Met concerts are hosted, in a New York studio, by Christine Goerke, the American soprano. But this time, the concert is hosted by another American soprano, Angel Blue. As Peter Gelb, the general manager of the company, explains at the beginning of the broadcast, Goerke had to quarantine, having traveled to a spiking state.
Gelb also mentions that Damrau will sing music that she would not necessarily sing on the opera stage—music belonging to Tosca, for example, or to Semiramide.
Concerts afford such opportunities, especially when there is a piano, rather than an orchestra. (Voices that might be swallowed by an orchestra can survive a piano.) In addition to concerts, studio recordings afford such opportunities.
I think of an album that Leontyne Price made in 1972: Five Great Operatic Scenes. Price sang Violetta, Tatiana, Elisabetta (Don Carlo), Ariadne, and Fidelio/Leonore. She did not want to be deprived of their music, and who can blame her?
The Damrau/Calleja/Moreschi concert begins with excerpts from Tosca: the duet from Act I, the aria “E lucevan le stelle,” and the aria “Vissi d’arte” (in that order, which is out of order, if you are following the opera). In the duet, Damrau is canny. She is a very good actress and, again, a winning personality. Is her light lyric soprano a Tosca? No, but we are experimenting here. As for Calleja, he is basically golden.
After the duet, Damrau talks to the audience—the audience out in Internet-land—saying the usual things about music and the pandemic. “We’re socially distanced, but we are connected.” “Our souls can be connected.” She says one thing that makes me smile: “Music is medicine without prescription.” And at the end of her remarks, she makes me positively grin. This is the most endearing thing I’ve ever heard a talker say during a concert: “And now I’ll stop talking, because I’m really not a talker.”
In “E lucevan le stelle,” Calleja is in utter control of himself: his voice, his technique, and the music. Damrau, in “Vissi d’arte”? It is a good, honest rendering.
Next comes some music-for-two from The Elixir of Love, Donizetti’s comic masterpiece (one of them). Damrau has a chance to express deliciousness and adorability; Calleja shows a fresh bel canto voice, sounding like a twenty-five-year-old. As for Maestro Moreschi, he has a knack for making these unpianistic accompaniments sound less so. He is a very capable partner, in the various items of the program this evening.
(I believe it is evening—afternoon, New York time.)
Calleja sings an aria from Un ballo in maschera, “Ma se m’è forza perderti.” He is ringing, clarion. Also darkling. Gustavo (the role in Ballo) is different from Nemorino (the role in Elixir). Calleja has an array of colors and vocal weights.
I heard a story from him a few years ago in Salzburg. I was interviewing him before an audience. When he was a kid, he took part in a Rigoletto, singing in the chorus. During the abduction scene, a veteran singer said to him, “Bella voce—devi studiare.” (“Beautiful voice—you have to study.”) This was right in the middle of a performance, mind you.
It is a beautiful voice—a supremely beautiful one. But you don’t show up in voice every day. That is asking too much. The last time I heard Calleja, he had no high notes, whatsoever. None. Middle and low, yes, but high, no. That’s the way the ball bounces sometimes.
In another interview, Renée Fleming shared with me what she said was a saying among singers: “You have eight good singing nights a year, and you’re not booked on any of them.” You’re stuck at home, singing to your cat, maybe.
I can tell you that, in this concert from Caserta, Joseph Calleja is in splendid voice. His timing is good, in that he has a worldwide audience, and presumably this concert will be preserved, on video, indefinitely.
Later on in the program, he sings the Flower Song, from Carmen. A few of his r’s are a little weird, but these are of no great import. On his high B flat, toward the end, he effects a nifty diminuendo.
In due course, La Damrau gets to let her hair down in an operetta aria—from Countess Maritza, by Kálmán. She exhibits gypsy panache. Calleja lets his hair down in “Granada,” singing this smoky song smokily. Please note that while the singers enjoy these numbers—obviously—they do not slum in them. They don’t sing down to the music, at all. They relish the music.
They further relish “Non ti scordar di me” (“Forget Me Not”), that Neapolitan heartbreaker. (Robert Moreschi probably heard it before he could walk.)
The performers close their program with a prayer—with “Ave Maria,” in the Bach-Gounod arrangement. First, Calleja speaks to the audience, saying that this “Ave Maria” is his mother’s favorite song. Afterward, Angel Blue, in the studio, says, “We join Diana and Joseph in praying for the victims of the pandemic.”
A fitting, perfect closing statement.