There was more than a little drama at Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s sold-out concert recital in Dublin’s National Concert Hall this evening. He was joined by Irish soprano Claudia Boyle and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Proinnsías Ó Duinn. Predictability was the order of the day in the choice of programme: familiar arias and duets from the Italian and French operas with a complementary sprinkling of overtures and intermezzi for the orchestra. This was as close one gets to popular classical music: songs that might feature on the classical charts. The listeners lapped up the dainty, romantic morsels on offer, proving that Calleja knows his market audience very well.

Joseph Calleja © Decca / Mathias Bothor
Joseph Calleja
© Decca / Mathias Bothor

Ó Duinn’s laconic conducting style tempered some of the romantic excesses of the music. The opening overture, Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, was suitably brassy and bombastic highlighting its cheeky character. There was an excited roar as Calleja strode onto the stage to sing “Cielo e mar” from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Aged 34, he has sung in most of the opera houses around the world and in 28 leading roles. His diary is impressively busy, with engagements in Chicago, Malta and Dublin in the last week alone. It is his voice that draws in the crowds. He possesses a fine, vibrant sound with an ability to project to the very back of the hall. The voice has a Mediterranean fell to it – lush, warm and sunnily confident. What was disappointing though was the rather limited emotional range conveyed and lack of subtlety in the expression. We missed the intensity of desire and longing in Don José’s Flower Song from Bizet’s Carmen and the false note towards the end of the aria was unusual in one normally so technically assured. The Danse Bohème, an intermezzo based on Bizet’s opera which followed, was well characterized, where a slightly slower-than-usual tempo added a hint of the mournful to the general wildness.

The focus then switched to Boyle, a young Irish soprano, who sang “E strano” from Verdi’s La Traviata. In contrast to Calleja’s under-dramatisation, Boyle’s theatricality was a little overplayed (it is, after all, a meditative number, at least until the “follia” interjections).

The end of the first half was dominated by Puccini with a slightly pedestrian rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin thrown in as well. There were some exquisite moments in the two arias from Tosca “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stele”, where I was content to simply luxuriate in Calleja’s voice and to ignore the fact that these arias should have had different emotional treatments. In the Act I duet from La Bohème Boyle, as Mimì, had relaxed more into her part and the first half ended semi-theatrically with both of them exiting the stage hand-in-hand still singing the final “amor”.

The drama was set to continue offstage: a fifteen-minute delay post intermission and the non-appearance of the tenor were enough to make all the audience wonder. Ó Duinn was thus thrust into the unenviable role of having to explain that Calleja was unwell and might or might not return to sing. Two orchestral intermezzi were grouped together in order to play for time. There was a clear sense of tension as Boyle stepped out to sing “Caro nome” from Verdi’s Rigoletto: time for some frenetic reshuffling on the part of conductor and the orchestra. When at last Calleja did return to the stage, he confessed to having a blackout at the interval, quipping that rather happily it was the Order of Malta ambulance that were on hand. He continued with the final pieces on the programme, two Massenet arias, “Pourquoi me reveiller” from Werther and “Ah! Tout est bien fini” from Le Cid. There was still the same beautiful bel canto style but at several points he failed to project over the orchestra which he had done so effortlessly before. Boyle saved her best for her final aria of the night, Verdi’s “Ernani involami”, and in the encores that followed there were moments of great excitement and coquettishness. Calleja was not to be outdone in generosity, making up for the few arias he missed with light fare such as “Grenada” and “Be my love”. The warmth of the audience’s applause at the end let him know that his popularity was undimmed.