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Joseph Calleja’s First Met Rodolfo

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
10/16/2010 -  and October 20, 23, November 1, 5, December 1, 4, 8*, 11, 2010, January 31, February 3, 7, 10, 17, 22, 25, 2011
Giacomo Puccini: La bohème
Maija Kovalevska/Krassimira Stoyanova* (Mimì), Vittorio Grigolo/Joseph Calleja*/Piotr Beczala/Ramón Vargas (Rodolfo), Fabio Capitanucci*/Peter Mattei (Marcello), Takesha Meshé Kizart/Ellie Dehn*/Susanna Phillips (Musetta), Shenyang/Günther Groissböck* (Colline), Edward Parks/Dimitris Tiliakos*/Trevor Scheunemann (Schaunard), Paul Plishka (Benoit and Alcindoro), Daniel Clark Smith/Christian Jeong*/Jeremy Little (Parpignol), Jason Hendrix/Brandon Mayberry*/Joseph Pariso (Customhouse sergeant), Richard Pearson/Roger Andrews/Robert Maher (Customhouse officer)
Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Roberto Rizzi Brignoli (Conductor)
Franco Zeffirelli (Production & Set Design), Peter J. Hall (Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), David Kneuss*/Knighten Smit (Stage Director)

J. Calleja (© Johannes Ifkovitz)

Puccini’s La bohème is that rare masterpiece with the power to enchant those new to opera as well as long-time devotees. The story is immediately accessible to anyone who has ever been in love. The score is filled with ingratiating melodies and is meticulously crafted with a kind of self-effacing genius. Puccini created great art that appears to be virtually artless. This irresistible combination accounts for the opera's more than 1,200 performances at the Met. About one quarter of these have been stagings of the current, venerable, visually arresting and crowd-pleasing Zeffirelli production, which premiered in 1981.

This season, we don’t have three tenors – we have four, two of whom make their Met role debut as Rodolfo. October saw the highly anticipated appearance of Vittorio Grigolo, who earned excellent reviews as Des Grieux in the Royal Opera's production of Manon. In January and February, Ramón Vargas and Piotr Beczala revisit the role they sang at the Met in 2008 and 2009, respectively. While the Met has cast Rodolfo with a superb collection of tenors, the jewel in the crown is surely Joseph Calleja.

Last year, at the Met's 125th Anniversary Gala, Calleja sang “Che gelida manina.” That evening, the first time I had heard him live, I was stunned by the radiance and sensuous beauty of his voice. And by its size. Seemingly without effort, his warm golden tone filled every corner of that huge hall. In the august company of some of the best singers opera has to offer, he simply dazzled. For sheer beauty of sound, I find his voice unsurpassed by any other tenor currently active. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to his Rodolfo. In fact, I went twice – opening night and then one week later to attend the performance I review here.

By the time Puccini wrote La bohème, he was such a master– of dramatically evocative musical motifs, of subtle orchestral coloring and texture, and most of all, of ravishing melodies – the music of his lovable Bohemians seemed to issue from their very hearts. It’s just so wonderfully appropriate to hear a Rodolfo like Calleja’s. His rock-solid technique makes the act of singing seem so natural that the character’s emotions come across with a breathtaking directness. His performance was beautifully characterized, both vocally and dramatically. He sang with honeyed sweetness and cascading waves of sunlit sound. But Calleja is also a master of dynamic nuance with his extraordinarily beautiful dimenuendos. His vocal line was elegant and seamless and his top notes thrilling. Dramatically, he was never less than convincing, conveying the high spirits of youth in the first and fourth acts, Rodolfo’s jealousy and anger in act three and, most poignantly, his devotion in the midst of utter despair, as he comforted the dying Mimì.

Of course, the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì is the heart and soul of the opera. Calleja has a marvelous partner and collaborator in Krassimira Stoyanova, the Bulgarian soprano. She sang with a supple luminous sound and an effortless blooming top without a trace of shrillness. What a lovely voice she has! Her acting was also superb. In her first aria, “Mi chiamano Mimì,” Stoyanova managed to create a whole character in just a few minutes. We discovered her girlish excitement, but also her determination. That she goes off with Rodolfo to meet his friends is a sign of her attraction but also a manifestation of gentle heroism; she is such a shy creature. Because Stoyanova makes Mimi so individualized, her fate is just so much more moving. The combination of her vulnerability (vocally and dramatically) and Rodolfo’s tenderness was deeply affecting.

Ellie Dehn’s Musetta was much more interesting and psychologically complex than the one dimensional flirt we all too often see – a shallow character who seems unaccountably transformed into a generous thoughtful friend in the last act. Dehn’s Musetta was warm and protective of Mimì from the start. She sang beautifully too, with a rich, creamy tone. Unfortunately she was let down by the conductor in act two as he took the orchestra his own way, leaving her pretty much on her own. Fabio Capitanucci made an excellent Met debut as a dark-voiced Marcello, a concerned and consoling friend for Rodolfo and a jealous and passionate lover for Musetta. Gunther Groissböck was a marvelous Colline. He sang with lovely legato and a warm burnished tone. This was a very promising house debut and I hope that we see a lot more of him here. Also making a fine Met debut was Dimitris Tiliakos as a warm-hearted and warm-voiced Schaunard.

Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Met, has announced that he has no plans to replace this Zeffirelli spectacular. It’s a great audience favorite. There are always oohs and ahhs, especially when the curtain goes up on the set for act two. Former Met General Manager Joseph Volpe has described it as featuring “143 Parisian revelers, twenty-four street urchins, nineteen soldiers, fourteen vendors, a marching band of twelve, two live animals (a donkey and a horse) and a fake bear.” He left out the man on stilts. The chorus performed splendidly as usual. However, on opening night, there were problems with this set, and the ensuing delay and then an unscheduled intermission caused the performance to clock in at four hours instead of the usual three. No such logistical drama beset this performance. The Met Orchestra played beautifully, bringing out Puccini’s gorgeous orchestral palette. However, the conductor, Roberto Rizzi Brignoli, certainly did not show them off to best advantage. He was also not sufficiently in tune with the singers, manifesting great difficulty in coordinating the orchestra with their shifts in tempo.

The evening belonged to Stoyanova and Calleja. Again, I was struck by the fact that he simply does not sound like anyone else. An aspect of his voice that is probably central to its uniqueness, his fast vibrato, has engendered some controversy. He maintains that young voices often have exhibited this characteristic, but that after a time, the vibrato becomes absorbed into the harmonics of the voice. (Although he has been singing professionally for 13 years, Calleja is still only 32!). He does record very well, on disk and in broadcasts but, unlike many singers whose recordings are more revealing of their vocal gifts, Calleja’s voice, to be fully appreciated, really should be heard live.

Calleja returns to the Met twice this season – in January for five performances as the Duke in the third of four casts of Rigoletto and then for the full run of Lucia with Natalie Dessay. On March 19, 2011, Lucia will be broadcast worldwide live in HD. In June, Calleja will take part in the Met’s three week Japan tour, part of the year-long celebration of James Levine’s 40th season with the company. He will alternate with Piotr Beczala in La bohème and Lucia.

The Website of Joseph Calleja

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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