The opening night of the Rosenblatt Recital Series at the Wigmore Hall was to have showcased the American tenor Stephen Costello in a mixed programme including some potentially interesting Jake Heggie song repertoire. However, a particularly vicious attack of influenza put paid to Mr Costello’s travel plans and set Ian Rosenblatt of on a pressing search for a replacement artist. As things turned out he was extraordinarily lucky to secure the services of Javier Camarena who was appearing in Zurich (where he is a regular soloist) and happened to be available on the day in question. Camarena recently made history by being one of only three artists in the last seventy years granted an encore at the Metropolitan Opera.

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Before you ask, the others were Pavarotti and Flórez and, playing the connections game still further, Camarena was replacing Flórez in La Cenerentola. Although he currently sings similar roles to Flórez I suspect that it will not be his eventual core repertoire. The voice has a rounded strength and phenomenal cut that indicates he will soon graduate to middle and even late period Verdi roles. I hope, for the sake of his development and vocal longevity that transfer will be managed carefully. As it is, the voice comfortably rises through the upper extension happily encompassing top Cs and even C sharps and he clearly delights in pinning the listeners to their seats. There were a few moments when he overestimated the size of the hall but it is always a pleasure to hear a tenor ascending with such ease and power into the stratosphere. As yet there are a few issues passing through the passaggio, especially when descending and there were occasional intonation issues when singing very quietly. I should note that this problem lessened noticeably as the evening wore on, so it may just have been an insufficiently rigorous warm up that was to blame. Despite these cavils this is an exceptionally promising voice and Camarena certainly seems set for a distinguished career.

Oddly he chose to open the programme with an aria (Belmonte’s “Ich baue ganz”) which, on this evidence, did not seem to suit him at all well, although his biog lists the role. The aria is one I associate with the Schreier/Wunderlich/Rolfe-Johnson type voice. It requires ultra-smooth vocalism and liquid fioritura. Unfortunately Camarena oversang the high parts in an almost verismo manner and aspirated the coloratura mercilessly. The quieter central section was better achieved but I honestly don’t see this Fach as being at all suitable for him.

Fortunately, after that one miscalculation Camarena was on much more steady ground. The moment he opened Tebaldo’s Act I aria from I Capuleti e I Montecchi he sounded more comfortable and the voice better centred. This was Pavarotti’s debut role at La Scala and Camarena is reminiscent of the great tenor both in his obvious enjoyment of high notes and his endearingly old fashioned platform manner. In the cabaletta “L’amo tanto” he found a light and shade that had been absent in the Mozart.

Next on the bill of fare was the aria which occasioned the demand for a repeat in New York. “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” (from La Cenerentola), a famously demanding race through lightning decoration and frequent and hideously exposed excursions above the stave. Camarena appeared to make light of the difficulties (even interpolating a high D!) and only the odd silences occasioned by the inevitable absence of a chorus to respond to the Prince slightly lessened the impact. However the performance certainly whetted the appetite to hear him in other Rossini roles while he still performs them. He would be an almost perfect fit for the near impossible role of Arnold in Guillaume Tell and now that the work seems ever more part of core repertoire of the large houses I hope he will be given the opportunity soon.

At present his talents seem less suited to the rapt quietude of Romeo’s serenade to Juliet from Gounod’s opera. This aria seemed to expose weaknesses in knitting the registers and the progression from forte to piano. I would have preferred a much more understated reading – I couldn’t help but think this Romeo would have wakened the entire Capulet household and the neighbours as well.

On to happier items – Camarena finished the first half of the programme with that Flórez warhorse, “Ah! Mes amis, quel jour de fête!” and it is satisfying to report that he did not suffer at all in comparison. Camarena’s reading is definitely more of a macho display – the high Cs (all pinged out without strain) were perhaps closer to an established warrior (Manrico?) than a raw, young recruit but this was a thrilling close to the first half. I wonder if he would fare as well in the blissful quiet second act aria?

The second part of the programme was given over entirely to popular Italian and Spanish song repertoire. I confess to being a complete sucker for the work of Sir Paolo Tosti and those of his ilk – whatever the snobs may say he knew how to exploit the voice and wring emotion without resorting to mere cheap effect. Camarena opened with Crescenzo’s “Rondine al nido” (much beloved of Pavarotti) and he immediately showed himself completely at home with the repertoire’s mix of almost conversational style mixed with heart-on-sleeve outbursts. In the quiet section he used an attractively covered tone which then opened out thrillingly for the climax. Both the Tosti songs, “Ideale” and “L’ultima canzone” were perfect mixes of the sensuality and melancholy which are core to the genre. Equally beguiling was the irresistible dance like swing of the central theme of “Musica proibita”

Finally to home territory of Latin song – Camarena opened with that perennial Domingo favourite “No puede ser” and, while it has never been a personal favourite of mine, he managed to make something thrilling of it. However one has to note a few points where singer and accompanist (the generally considerate and reliable Enrico Maria Cacciari) parted company. In the circumstances, however, of, presumably, limited rehearsal time this was an excusable lapse. However favourite of the group was María Grever’s “Despedida” portraying the final farewell of two lovers with an almost delirious fervour. Camarena pulled out all the stops even risking a sob that would have warmed the heart of Del Monaco or Corelli.

The final listed item was that warhorse of Spanish popular song “Granada” which, oddly, felt slightly anti-climactic after the Grever song. This may partly have been due to Camarena oversinging, determined to finish on a high, but also the song is musically average compared to many in this genre.

Fortunately this proved not to be the final item as, after much audience prompting, Camarena admitted to some encores. Firstly Leoncavallo’s “La Danza”: here in the lightning tongue twister lyrics and the joyous ascent to the repeated top notes Camarena again reminded me of the great Pavarotti following it with a suitably tear drenched “Core n’grato”. Camarena finally brought the audience to its feet with a window rattling “Nessun dorma”

Despite reservations regarding a couple of ill-chosen items and minor technique issues this was a fit introduction to London of one of opera’s most promising young tenors. I look forward to seeing him return very soon in complete roles.

4 stars

Sebastian Petit

(Photo : Beth Bergman)