Times Online, January 16, 2005
Hugh Canning
They could be contenders
Who will eventually replace Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras? Hugh Canning on the rising — and fading — stars
It is now almost 15 years since the Three Tenors phenomenon hit the headlines and first topped the record charts. It began with the live open-air arena appearance of Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and José Carreras, at the Roman baths of Caracalla, near Rome, to co- incide with the 1990 World Cup. Overnight, the astonishing success of the live television broadcast, and unprecedented sales (for classical singers) of compact discs, turned these three already famous opera stars into household names. Pavarotti and his record company, Decca, made millions in royalties. None of the repeat concerts and their offshoots ever quite matched the money-making bonanza of the original item but, ever since, the search has been on for the successors to the tenorial triple crown.

A week tomorrow, a likely candidate for tenor superstardom, the 27-year-old Maltese Joseph Calleja, returns to Covent Garden as the lovelorn Alfredo Germont in Verdi’s La traviata. Calleja is the Benjamin of a youthful trio of tenor totty — the others are the Mexican Rolando Villazon, 32, and the German Jonas Kaufmann, 35 — who seem predestined to shine in the age of DVD opera recordings. All are young, good-looking and more than presentable actors, with voices of distinctive, lyrical timbres.

It would, of course, be wrong to predict that these singers will “replace” Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras in the affections of the wider popera public — for a start, they are achieving international prominence at an age when their seniors regarded themselves as apprentices — but they all have heart-throb potential for an audience younger than the ageing matrons (“Domingo Crazies”) and Italian-mamma types who formed the hard core of the Three Tenors’ fan base. Sorry, ladies, they are all married with one child.

Inevitably, there is a downside to fast-tracked singing careers. Voices are not machines, or even as robust as musical instruments. I’ve lost count of the number of young wannabes promoted as the so-called Fourth Tenor, but already, with the hindsight of a decade and a half, it is clear that few singers have emerged with the charisma, musicianship, technique or sheer staying power to match Pavarotti and Domingo in their prime — or the young Carreras.

Several have established considerable careers in the opera house, where the older tenors spent the best part of 30 years prior to their Roman intergalactic launch and continue to do so. The Franco-Sicilian Roberto Alagna was the first contender for the crown, especially when he teamed up, in real life and on record, with the glamorous Romanian soprano, Angela Gheorghiu. Although he has a loyal fan base, Alagna’s push into more dramatic roles has robbed his lightish voice of its early bloom.

For a time, his nearest rival was the hunky, machismo-oozing Argentinian José Cura, who, 10 years ago, displayed the potential to fill Domingo’s shoes; however, his recent appearances at the ROH and with the LSO, as Otello and Samson, were tragic to witness. Neither Cura nor Alagna is appearing with the Royal Opera this season.

Among the younger tenors who are, both the Peruvian Juan Diego Florez and Cura’s countryman Marcelo Alvarez are already well into their flourishing careers.

Florez has been marketed by Decca as the tenor equivalent of the same company’s flamboyant Italian mezzo, Cecilia Bartoli (classical music’s best seller after Pavarotti), but his delicate tenore di grazia has always been a specialist voice, and he is unlikely to pitch himself at the Nessun dorma market. Alvarez is a good singer but, as his recent Royal Opera Werther betrayed, lacks something extra in the acting and charisma departments.

Of the Three Tenorinos — as we might call them while the ori-ginal trio can still sing — Calleja is perhaps the dodgiest bet. I first encountered him at the Wexford Festival in 1999, in a tiny role in I Cavalieri di Ekebu (The Knights of Ekebu) by Riccardo Zandonai, a bit of an also-ran contemporary of Puccini. Even in a supporting part, Calleja garnered glowing notices, and they were even better when he re-turned to the tiny Irish theatre to sing the tenor lead in Adolphe Adam’s Si j’étais roi (If Only I Were King). Subsequently, apart from landing a record contract with Decca (who picture him as a chunky mafioso bodyguard type, with shaved head and “cool” shades, on his debut album, Tenor Arias), he has sung the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto — one of Pavarotti’s early sensations — for Welsh National and the Royal Opera (2002) and Alfredo, two years ago, at Covent Garden. In Cardiff’s 1,000-seat New Theatre, his Duke recalled the bel canto lyric tenors of the early recording era, with its quick vibrato, elegance and agility, but his RO Alfredo was underpowered. Ears will surely be pricked to see if this appealing young voice has developed since last time round. He gives a song recital at St John’s, Smith Square, on February 16 and has been signed up to play Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth at Covent Garden.

Kaufmann made his London operatic debut last November, surprisingly, for a German tenor, in a revival of Puccini’s La rondine opposite Gheorghiu. He has been a fixture, in concerts and recitals, at the Edinburgh Festival, where I have heard him give wonderfully mature and beautifully sung accounts of Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) and Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Mill-Girl). He has a romantic stage presence, hardly looking German at all with his black, tousled locks and Mediterranean features and complexion. I caught him in Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust in Brussels and as Belmonte in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio at the Salzburg Festival, both performances suggesting immense promise. I only attended the dress rehearsal of La rondine, but the reviews suggested that he held his own against Gheorghiu and looked the lovesick toy boy to perfection. Kaufmann doesn ’t have a record contract, but he can be seen and heard on DVDs of Paisiello’s Nina and Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses from the Zurich Opera. With the same company, he appears at the Royal Festival Hall twice this season as two troubled Roman emperors, Nero and Titus, in concert performances of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (March 3) and Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito (May 1).

The tenor with the greatest potential to match and perhaps rival the Big Three, is, I think, Villazon. His debut at Covent Garden, exactly a year ago, was one of the most exciting I have witnessed in more than 30 years of attending the theatre. The audience roared their approval on the first night — Villazon jumped up and down like a delighted child winning the sack race — and the critics were close to unanimity in their acclaim for his vocal and physical performance. One distinguished reviewer called him “a shining new star” whose “voice has a baritonal timbre and firm heroic ring — at times (sounding) like ... Domingo.”

Villazon’s Domingo-like timbre was apparent as the Steersman in Daniel Barenboim’s recording of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, but in the flesh, the voice has nothing like the volume of the Spaniard’s. That was confirmed when Villazon sang a slightly overstretched Don Carlo — one of Domingo’s great Verdi parts — in Amsterdam last June, and it’s slightly worrying to read that he has already taken Don José, in Bizet’s Carmen, into his repertoire, an unquestion-ably dramatic and emotionally exhausting role. In Barcelona’s Gran Liceu and London’s Royal Opera House, he is tackling lighter weights this year: Donizetti’s Nemorino and Verdi’s Duke of Mantua. His new album, just out on Virgin, concentrates on the lyric French heroes of Massenet and Gounod, particularly the latter’s Romeo and Faust, which he is singing in many different places this year. If he sticks to this kind of repertoire, Villazon should be around for a long time to come. Fingers crossed.

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