CD Review: “Il Tenore” by Freddie De Tommaso

It’s a bit of a paradox that the proverbial shortage of tenors coexists with the announcement, at regular intervals, of a new vocal phenomenon that, after one or two solo recitals, the recording industry decides to “crown before ‘they are kings’. and no less cynically paraphrase a famous saying by Mascagni. Yet there are too many instances in which media sensationalism has contributed to the stellar rise and fall of young singers for it not to hold a grain of truth.

It is therefore with a certain skepticism that I listened to Freddie De Tommaso’s recent album which, unfortunately, could not dissipate the most pressing of my reservations, as the recurrence of stylistic flaws harms the pleasure of music by elsewhere beautifully colored. voice.

Act as

De Tommaso’s success story in London has all the makings of a Christmas miracle when in December 2021 he not only saved the Royal Opera House‘s production of “Tosca” by replacing the indisposed Bryan Hymel, but garnered rave reviews from international newspapers and magazines. setting him on the right path to (early) stardom. Also in 2021, he released his first studio recital, “Passione”, a tribute to Southern Italian music that has been widely hailed as a heartfelt tribute to the tenors of the 1950s and 1960s.

With “Il Tenore”, he now proposes to mark the transition of the voice in the spinto repertoire of Puccini and Bizet, that is to say the four operas of (in chronological order) “Carmen”, “Tosca “, “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot”. .” He is supported by the Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as the soloists Natalya Romaniw, Aigul Akhmetshina, and, more particularly, Lise Davidson who associate themselves with the Anglo-Italian tenor in a more or less generic way, preventing one of the duos from developing a real music. or a dramatic synergy.

Because the general impression is that of a kind of superficiality by which the characters of De Tommaso remain strangely interchangeable. His Don José shows the same stentorian antics as Cavaradossi or even Pinkerton – the latter sadly resisting the score’s many invitations to infuse the dramatic context with that bittersweet aftertaste of the American lieutenant’s infamous seduction.

Take for example the line to “Un po’ di vero c’è” which is meant not only to be conversational in tone, but also to reflect, in hindsight, Pinkerton’s moral neglect as he “gently takes the hands of Butterfly and smiles” (to quote Puccini’s indications). The cruel irony of the situation goes unnoticed by our tenor who, with little dynamic variation, jumps straight into the exclamatory call of “Vieni, vieni”. The result is one of communicative disappointment, as Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San are the one-dimensional, sometimes stereotypical shadows of their natural selves.

“My beloved Tosca!

It may be asking too much of a recital like “Il Tenore” to accurately describe the psychological behavior of its protagonists, but the relative failure to do so is not attributable to the tenor alone. I find it unreasonable, from a production point of view, to devote half of the pieces to duets in which not one, but three different sopranos make their appearance! This heightens the sense of emotional detachment that pervades what, of the entire album, makes the “Madama Butterfly” snippets seem the most ineffectual.

On the other hand, the vocal agreement with Lise Davidsen in “Tosca” works much better, in particular thanks to the complicity between the temperament of the role and the incisiveness of its timbre. It admirably balances the warmth of De Tommaso’s tone in the overlays of “Certa sono del perdono” and “Mia Tosca idolatrata”.

Commendable is also the transition, albeit slightly aspirated, from “s’affisa intero” to “occhio all’amor soave” where the tenor shines in a rare moment of passionate intensity.

A matter of style

For the rest, it is difficult to have a fair measure of the tenor’s abilities as an artist and vocal technician. Listen to the interpretation of “Non piangere Liù”. The Italian-style “smalto” so characteristic of, say, Richard Tucker or any of the post-war all-time greats is in no way foreign to De Tommaso’s interpretation of the elegy of the first act of Calaf.

But it also suffers from a counterintuitive break in the verse when it passes from “dolce mia fanciulla” to “m’ascolta”, embarrassed, it must be added, by the unimaginative treatment of the ritardando by which the conductor orchestra Paolo Arrivabeni gives the melody the dramatic dimension of the melody. little chance of unfolding. As for the semantic differentiation of the aria, it is unfortunate that the repetition of “questo” – after Calaf has asked the slave Liù to take care of his father – does not receive the deictic accent that the context or in does the rallentando of the orchestra calls for.

Interestingly, these stylistic inconsistencies occur to a much lesser extent in Puccini’s other arias. De Tommaso fashions his Cavaradossi as a muscular tribune rather than a sentimental idealist whose heroic tone, however, forgoes the possibility of showing some variety through the use of rubato, especially in “E lucevan le stelle”.

These same traits become redundant in the excerpts from “Carmen” where they do little justice to the notational intricacies of Bizet and French lyrical style in general. In “The Flower You Thrown Me”, for example, De Tommaso favors dramatic emphasis over the cantabile base of the writing, adding veristic undertones ill-suited to the full spectrum of emotivity in passages like ” only one desire” (marked “crescendo molto”).

From a personal point of view, I therefore do not see the imminent developments in his career linked as much to the French repertoire as to Puccini or even to the operas of Verdi’s middle period (until “Un Ballo in Maschera”) whose some live broadcasts can be found online.

A promise for the future

How then to situate “Il Tenore”? The cumulative effect of its flaws certainly prevents it from being as revealing a presentation as the natural qualities of De Tommaso’s voice would otherwise have deserved. It’s no surprise that even after the second and third listens, there’s still a sense of missed opportunities that could have been alleviated by focusing more on the arias than the duets.

In my mind, however, there is no doubt that Freddie De Tommaso has mastered the skills necessary to become one of the most viscerally exciting tenors on stage and the luminous brilliance of his “Nessun Dorma” – the best track ever. album – does more than support that. . But it’s a promise for the future, hoping for great things to come.

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