Yoncheva and Calleja Give Verdi a Workout

New, well-recorded albums of Verdi arias from two of the Metropolitan Opera's biggest and most heralded stars - Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, 36, and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, 40, give as much cause for excitement as they do for pause. As fine as the singing may be on Sonya Yoncheva: The Verdi Album (Sony) and Calleja: Verdi (Decca), the ways in which these artists push their voices to encompass heavier repertoire raises questions as to how long they can sustain such pressure on their instruments without serious sacrifice.

Of most concern is Yoncheva. Heard thrice this year in Live from the Met in HD telecasts/ of Puccini's Tosca and La Bohème and Verdi's Luisa Miller, her exceptionally beautiful voice sounds like a lyric instrument that is being increasingly pushed into spinto repertoire. As such, she is striving to join a long line of sopranos who possess the freely flowing top notes of a lyric soprano, and who can also push their voices to produce heavy dramatic exclamations and climaxes.

Milanov, Callas, Tebaldi, Gencer, Cerquetti, Leontyne Price, and Caballé are seven of the top sopranos in the last 75 or so years who successfully assayed both lyric and spinto roles, with the extremely versatile Callas, Gencer, and Caballé also able to tackle bel canto coloratura. I am not convinced that Yoncheva belongs in their company.

Clearly the Met considers Yoncheva's combination of vocal beauty and good looks a major asset, and is positioning her as the next Anna Netrebko—an all-in-one soprano who, if not in the same league as Maria Callas, can nonetheless sing everything from Monteverdi and Bellini to heavy Verdi roles. That's all well and good for an artist whose instrument that can handle the weight. But as one contemplates a career trajectory that, in short order, has progressed from singing early music with William Christie and Emmanuelle Haïm to a Verdi album that ends with the tour-de-force "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno .. Salgo già del trono aurato" aria and cabaletta from Verdi's Nabucco—the opera that Leontyne Price refused to sing, and that wrecked the voice of Elena Suliotis—one cannot help but wonder if Yoncheva is really cut out for such punishing repertoire.

As lovely as her voice may be on "Tacea la notte placida . . . Di tale amor che dirsi" from Il Trovatore, her interpolated cadence between aria and cabaletta sounds edgy, and the high notes a bit hard. (Callas's, of course, were steely as all get out, and eroded in less than 10 years.) Nonetheless, what sounds like a two-octave run in the cabaletta is exceptional. I do wish Yoncheva and conductor Massimo Zanetti, who leads the Mönchner Rundfunkorchester, were more flexible with tempos and not so bound by the metronome, but that seems to be the norm nowadays with all but the finest and most idiomatic Verdi singers and conductors. Think Callas, whose mentor and frequent conductor, Tulia Serafin (1878–1968), worked under Toscanini before becoming Music Director at La Scala when Toscanini left. Or think Caballé, who either had her way with tempo and dynamics, or worked with another conductor.

As the recital proceeds through arias from Luisa Miller, Attila, Stiffelio, La Forza del Destino, Otello, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlo, and Nabucco, we hear long, steady and beautifully voiced lines punctuated by a few question marks. There's some Callas-like intensity that emerges from time to time in the midrange, but the dark, hollow low chest tones that are the hallmark of many a great spinto, and that are demanded by the music, are simply not there.

So many of the arias on this disc communicate extreme anguish and suffering, but Yoncheva seems able to suffer only so much. Most troublesome, she virtually screams at the end of the Stiffelio aria, and lacks both requisite lightness at the start of Forza's great "Pace! Pace, mio Dio!" and the dark undertones that would make us feel the power of cursed fate. The aria's final blazing high note, on the other hand, is gorgeous.

One would expect Yoncheva to be superb as Desdemona, but she concludes the prayer somewhat matter of factly, and the high A is edgy rather than ethereal. Here and elsewhere, she sounds as though she must struggle to sing high notes in anything other than full voice. For a singer who got her start in early music, that is discomforting.

Matter of factness also mars Boccanegra's exquisite "Come in quest'ora bruna"—check out Eileen Farrell's recording to hear how this aria should be done—although the full-voiced, climactic high C is, once again, steady and gorgeous. Zanetti is occasionally too melodramatic, and overemphasizes Verdi's oom-pah-pah accompaniment.

Despite such criticism, the demanding "Tu che le vanità . . . Francia, nobile suol" from Don Carlo is a triumph. Soft notes lower in the range are beautiful, big climaxes are wow moments, and the range of vocal colors is dramatically convincing. The voice-slaying Nabucco aria is just as impressive. If Yoncheva confines performances of such grueling arias to the occasional recital, she may do just fine.

For Calleja, there is less concern for damage to the voice, and copious praise for tonal beauty and convincing ardor. No stranger to demanding repertoire, Calleja was 19 when he made his operatic debut as Macduff in Verdi's Macbeth. Then, on his first recital for Decca in 2004, he even interspersed Macduff's "O figli miei . . . Ah, la paterna mano" and arias from Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto with core verismo arias and bel canto gems by Donizetti. He is hardly a stranger to demanding arias.

Nonetheless, Calleja's embrace of "tenore robusto" repertoire reveals that his phrasing lacks the idiomatic flexibility of a Caruso and the totally personal, breathtaking timing of a Corelli. Far more serious, some of his repertoire requires heavier tone than he normally produces.

Although he gives us four arias from Otello, he possesses neither the clarion tone of a Del Monaco, Vickers, Martinelli, or Tamagno, or the dark spin of a Domingo. While his voice may darken naturally with age, it seems too soon for him undertake such a role without prematurely sacrificing the sweetness that works so well in some of his bel canto repertoire.

Both recordings honor the voice without seemingly covering up flaws. Both singers' warm vocal core and force comes through loud and clear. How dynamic the voices sound in hi-rez, which I was unable to obtain from the labels in time for the review, remains unknown.

When all is said and done, these two recordings are essential for anyone who loves the human voice. If you want to savor some of the best singing that currently graces the stage in the operas of Verdi and other late 19th-/early 20th-century Italian greats, do not hesitate.

Ortofan's picture

... bring a tear to the eye of James Levine, as did Carlo Bergonzi:

pbarach's picture

Nice to see Eileen Farrell mentioned; I think she's often forgotten. On YouTube, I just ran across her 1949 broadcast performance of Knoxville:Summer of 1915 conducted by Bernard Herrman:

volvic's picture

No, she's no Price but my wife and friends thoroughly enjoyed her in Jan at the Met. Oh, and what a jump in the final scene, everyone loved and applauded. Thanks for sharing JVS.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Ah, sadists, one and all, cheering a diva on to her death!

Yes, she was very, very fine in Tosca. Grigolo as well. It's definitely an alternative perspective than that presented b Callas, di Stefano, and Gobbi w. de Sabata, or the incredible Act II video with Callas, Cioni, and Gobbi, Pretre conducting, from ROH in 1964.

Although I could not stay for the last act, what I heard of her Bohème this past Saturday left me feeling that she is not an ideal Mimì. The voice lacks fragility and vulnerability, and her acting was more convincing than her singing. I also wish that she and Fabiano would have communicated more, so that she would have cut her high C when he did at the end of "O soave fanciulla." He was fine up to a B, but above that, it was shaky.

volvic's picture

Kidding of course! Hope you enjoyed it, at least the part you were there for. Will have to make my way with the missus to hear her before season ends. Strange that these days have difficulty enjoying any other Tosca except for Price/Karajan. Do enjoy the Davis/Caballe as well. Visited my parents in Montreal and found a Maazel/Nilsson, sadly doesn't work for me. Off to get tix for Boheme. Keep on writing and listening. Enjoy!