The breathtakingly beautiful town of Lucca is renowned throughout the musical world as the birthplace of one of the most beloved opera composers, Giacomo Puccini. His immense popularity has inevitably overshadowed another talented but unlucky “lucchese”, Alfredo Catalani. It is therefore commendable that one of the most important local musical societies, the Circolo Musicale Alfredo Catalani decided to name itself after the composer of La Wally, his only opera to be occasionally revived (and I would also like to mention that the name of the local Conservatoire of Music is “Luigi Boccherini”, another illustrious son of Lucca).
One of the many events of the Circolo Catalani (held in the stunning mediaeval Complesso Monumentale di San Micheletto in Lucca), is to present the “Targa d’Argento Luciana Pardini”, an annual award dedicated to the memory of the founder of the society, an indefatigable patroness of the arts. Such an award, bestowed on young musicians (singers, conductors, instrumentalists) on the verge of big careers, has over the years become a coveted prize as a well as reliable indicator of a secure future; past winners include names such as singers Francesco Meli, Veronica Simeoni, Paoletta Marrocu, Juan Francisco Gatell, as well as pianist/conductor Massimo Morelli and composer Aldo Tarabella.
The artist chosen for this edition had all the requirements to deserve such recognition and can certainly stand comparison with his predecessors. Max Jota is a Brazilian born tenor of Italian training. I have already heard and favourably reviewed him on a number of occasions, most notably as Cavadossi in Tosca and particularly as the protagonist of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Regarding his vocal endowment, I can only quote what I wrote just a few months ago and describe him as “possessing a luxurious lyric tenor with a liquid, springy timbre, his high notes characterized by a meaty, juicy resonance, exuberant freedom and tonal refulgence.” This recital also confirmed my earlier impressions that he has a very good understanding of how the vocal mechanism should work: in other words, what is commonly called “a good technique”: I can only repeat that his voice sounds perfectly “in the mask”, and that he is one of the very few tenors around with a clear concept of the passaggio: as I said in my previous review, he starts to prepare it by slightly covering the notes immediately preceding it, which yields a top gifted with squillo.
The program of the recital, brilliantly “emceed” by musicologist/entertainer Daniele Rubboli, was eclectic, unusual, intriguing and culturally stimulating: while only three old chestnuts were present, the rest contained true rarities. As the tenor explained on stage (and that was the recital’s only flaw: it is not a good idea to force a singer to give lengthy speeches between arias), each piece was somehow connected to his life experience. As he represented Brazil in “I sing Beijing”, a program sponsored by the National Theatre of Beijing in collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera House, he opened with a Chinese aria called “The Song of the Earth”, a demanding piece with impossible intervals requiring a very strong sense of pitch. “Una furtiva lagrima” (from L’Elisir d’amore) was sung with all the necessary chiaroscuros, lovely messe di voce and sincere pathos. Then he showed the security and ease of his high register in “Ô Dieu, de quelle ivresse”, from Les Contes d’Hoffmann, which is becoming one of his war-horses. He concluded the first part with an homage to his motherland singing Lundú da Marquesa by Heitor Villa Lobos, performed with nonchalance despite the difficulties of the piece.
He was fabulously (Jota described her piano as an orchestra, and he was on the mark) accompanied by Laura Pasqualetti, a renowned pianist and coach, who – as an intermezzo – performed the Suite Chaplin, a medley of Charlie Chaplin’s most familiar melodies in commemoration of the artist’s 125th birth anniversary.
Max Jota returned with a second tribute to Brazil, this time performing an aria from Fosca, by Carlos Gomes, an unjustly forgotten composer. Written on a libretto by Ghislanzoni (he of Aida fame), Fosca is a full blooded opera dealing with extreme passions as well as an exceptional vehicle for those dramatic or spinto sopranos eager to portray anti-heroines full of hatred and the spirit of vengeance of unrequited love. The male leading role, Paolo, also makes considerable vocal demands on the tenor, as his aria “Ah! Se tu sei fra gli angeli” (and even more the preceding recitative “Intenditi con Dio!”) clearly demonstrates. Jota threw himself into the piece with fierceness and intensity. After the almost inescapable “La donna è mobile” (Rigoletto) and its ringing high B, Jota performed an aria from Giulietta e Romeo (yes, in this order, because Italians have traditionally given to the heroine the honour of first mention) by Riccardo Zandonai. As a winner of a competition named after the abovementioned composer, Jota felt it was his duty to increase the awareness of this opera to a wider audience, and rightly so, because the whole work is of the same quality as Francesca da Rimini, and this aria in particular is an extremely dramatic and heartbreaking account of Romeo’s death. This is clearly no land for full lyric tenors, but Jota, at least in the confines of a small concert hall, was able to overcome the hurdles of an aria intended for a true spinto. The program ended with “Addio, fiorito asil” from Madama Butterfly, presented not just as a way to show off a high B flat, but with palpable pangs of remorse. This is Puccini territory, and the encore was “Recondita armonia” from Tosca.
Max Jota is a tenor to follow closely.
Photo: Jean-Philippe Baltel