Recording of the Week,
Vincerò! Piotr Beczała sings Verismo
With live music and theatre currently on indefinite hiatus, I’ve had mixed feelings about listening to much opera over the past few weeks, but test-driving a new album of verismo arias from Piotr Beczała (out today on Pentatone) turned out to be just the lockdown pick-me-up I needed.
At 50, the Polish tenor is in his absolute prime, with none of the roughness around the edges which many of his illustrious contemporaries are starting to exhibit: whereas others make a virtue of necessity and employ those signs of wear-and-tear to dramatic effect in this music, Beczała sounds in complete control of every interpretative gesture. There are no awkward register-breaks to disguise, no ‘sobs in the voice’ to camouflage issues with line and breath-control, and not so much as a hint of rawness on the many exposed top notes - these unfurl with thrilling power at the climaxes of arias from Gianni Schicchi, Adriana Lecouvreur and Andrea Chénier, and of course the obligatory 'Nessun dorma', which closes the album in a blaze of glory.
Time and again I found myself making mental comparisons not with other tenors past or present, but with the late, great Mirella Freni, who also maintained astonishing vocal freshness well into middle age and beyond thanks to careful repertoire choices and canny scheduling – it’s telling that Beczała’s 2021/2022 season includes a return to Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as well as heavyweight assignments such as Lohengrin and Radamès, and in his brief but insightful booklet-note he mentions how his approach to verismo has been informed by the many years he’s spent singing lyric and bel canto roles.
Most of the repertoire here is new to Beczała, with the exceptions of Cavaradossi (fast becoming something of a signature-role) and the caddish Saxon count Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, which he sang to great acclaim opposite Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera early last year. It’s customary in this scenario to muse on whether an artist’s characterisation of roles as yet unsung on stage will ‘deepen with experience’ etc, and whilst I wouldn’t rule that out entirely I’ve a feeling that Beczała will by and large stick to his guns: his attitude to this repertoire seems to be less motivated by the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd and more by the desire to portray these characters as real, complex people. This is especially striking in the many parlando sections – Cavaradossi’s broken flashbacks of Tosca before E lucevan le stelle really warms into life, Turiddu’s stammering, anxiously hungover attempts to open up to his mother at the beginning of Mascagni's Mamma, quel vino - which are delivered with an unusual, even disconcerting interiority, and with the crystal-clear diction that’s one of the album’s most striking virtues. (Anyone who claims that it’s impossible to deliver text clearly above the stave or to sing a true vowel on a high B flat should find plenty of evidence to the contrary here…).
The various characters (and indeed their various moods in the instances where several arias from the same opera are included) are beautifully differentiated: Gianni Schicchi’s prospective son-in-law Rinuccio sounds so youthful, lithe and witty in his paean to Florence that at first I wondered if that particular aria had been recorded earlier in Beczała’s career (it hadn’t), and Maurizio’s ardent elegance as he butters up Adriana Lecouvreur in her dressing-room is light-years away from his macho posturing at the Act Three ball as he describes thrashing his Russian enemies with all the swagger of Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart. The orchestra, too, are no slouches when it comes to conjuring atmosphere, aided by Pentatone’s fine engineering: in the opening aria from Tosca there’s a wonderful sense of the light and space in Cavaradossi’s makeshift studio in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, and I love the way ‘Viva il vino spumeggiante’ from Cavalleria rusticana lurches from an impromptu-but-civilised Easter Morning gathering to something much more unguarded and volatile.
All in all, this is an absolute feast of great singing from an artist at the height of his powers: consume the whole thing in one sitting, and with the volume cranked up as high as the neighbours will tolerate.