Tenor Joseph Calleja, conductor Giuliano Carella and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra presented an interesting choice of repertoire on Monday. The composers were celebrated Italian and French masters of opera, and the programme alternated between overtures for orchestra and arias starring Calleja. Already at this point an element of balance was detectable: the alternation between orchestra-only and orchestra-and-soloist pieces suggested that they played an equally important role.

Joseph Calleja © DECCA / Mathias Bothor
Joseph Calleja
© DECCA / Mathias Bothor

The concert starts well on time at 20:00 – lights fade away in the Concert Hall of the Helsinki Music Center and the opening notes of I Vespri Siciliani by Verdi resound. Maybe the unexplored venue, maybe the rainy day or the tiredness of traveling, whatever the cause, the orchestra sections’ coordination is not ideal, and the delays and inaccuracies will remain until the second part of the concert. The sound, on the other hand, is pleasant, and the various timbres blend well in a defining and distinguishing color.

It should be said that dealing with the impeccable acoustics of this newly built Concert Hall for the first time is challenging – although it seems that Calleja has no big trouble in overcoming them. His rich, American-sounding voice has the rarity of being both round at all times and across his range, and capable of being a match for the orchestra. His sound fills the tiniest corners in the big hall, and the violins heat it up by beginning “Forse la soglia... Ma se m’è forza” from Un ballo in maschera – also by Verdi – with a warm, old-fashioned, romantic vibrato.

Reliably excellent, Calleja carries on with “O figli... Ah, la paterna mano” from Verdi’s Macbeth. His dynamic spectrum is wide, and his body is constantly engaged in dramatic movements, always perceptible, no matter how small. His musical presence is well aware of the orchestra and leaves open channels with it. His Italian pronunciation is as clear as in spoken language; so precise that it is possible to follow the lyrics with no subtitles or complementary text.

Three pieces by Puccini follow in the program: “La Tregenda” from Le Villi; “Recondita armonia” and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. Given the big repertoire, it would be easy to fall into the cliché of the customer-pleasing prima donna performance. Instead, the balance and the mutual respect are well held at all times, the center of it possibly being the conductor, Giuliano Carella.

An excellent mediator between the two musical parties, in fact, it might even have been him who suggested letting the clarinet steal the scene from the tenor in the opening bars of “E lucevan le stelle”. Given that Calleja has been perfectly audible over the sound of the orchestra even in the pianissimos faced to this moment, the reason why he is slightly covered by the clarinet must surely be a musical choice.

The intermission ceases with the return of Italian repertoire; in this case the overture to Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Once again – and for the last time before a consistent and constant improvement in this sense – there is a phase displacement between and within the sections of the orchestra, especially when it comes to pizzicatos. At least – now that the winds are well warmed-up – the intonation is good. It is in the overture to Pagliacci by Leoncavallo that the orchestra creates a truly intimate atmosphere and shows inspiration from their scores.

The same commitment holds in the upcoming aria “Mamma, quel vino è generoso”, also from Cavalleria Rusticana; so much that the tenor is challenged dynamically. The same happens in “Io conosco un giardino” by Pietri (from Maristella), although it is elegantly concluded with a charming diminuendo and a held pianissimo by Calleja.

The last part of the program switches from Italian repertoire to French. The typically different orchestration leaps to your ears, and the concertmaster jumps in as a concertante player, in dialogue with the winds and brass in the darkly excited Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns.

The last piece in the program, following the “calm after the storm” of “Ah! Tout est bien fini!” from Le Cid, is “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther, also by Massenet. The harmony keeps changing between major and minor, and instruments such as cellos, harp and winds take part in the musical conversation with Calleja as “supporters” or “answerers”.

Just before his three encores, which have their peak in “O sole mio”, the tenor feels like adding a note of humor to the evening. He thanks the spectators for their enthusiasm and leaves them with a message for their friends who think that opera is a complicated art form: “opera actually consists of a tenor and soprano wanting to meet up, but being forbidden from doing so by the baritone”.

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