Opera, for me, has been one of the most bittersweet areas of my life. Some of my happiest moments have been spent listening to Caruso, Gigli, and the great singers of the 1950s – the "Second Golden Age."
Some of my life's unhappiest moments have been spent listening to singers of today.
I won't bore you with a long diatribe on the descent of singing technique – I got that out of my system in The Twilight of Belcanto. And I simply became resigned that great singing was like an old black-and-white photo on the wall: something beautiful and grand that you can look at anytime you want, but no matter what you do, you cannot enter into that photo – or make the people in the photo come out.
You'll forgive me, then, if I'm reluctant to hear new tenors. I won't name names of the tenors whom everyone said was "the next great tenor." One had less technique than the other. All I need to say is: if Andrea Bocelli is engaged to sing opera, that fact in itself depicts the short supply of good tenors.
Tonight, January 2, 2010, I heard for the first time a young Polish tenor named Piotr Beczala. The aria was Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali from Lucia, a live recording from the October 15, 2008, Met broadcast, posted on YouTube. I have to say, I was reluctant to hear it – not only because people say he is "the next great tenor," but because that aria – like Celeste Aïda, like Dai campi, dai prati, is an aria that exposes any and all defects in technique.
Well, I listened.
I was not prepared for what I heard.
As much as I detest comparisons like, "the Russian Caruso," or, "the Norwegian Gigli," or, "the Zimbabwean Schipa," I have to say that the first few notes reminded me of – dare I say it? – Jussi Björling. Before that first phrase was over, before Beczala even got to l'ali, I already knew that I had stumbled upon a great tenor. I looked again at the YouTube description, to make sure it really was a live recording. Part of me couldn't believe it.
For the first time in my entire life, the way I felt listening to this man sing was the same way I feel listening to recordings of the great tenors of the past. When you hear Gedda in his prime, for instance, you feel yourself almost being caressed, not by the instrument itself – because lots of people walking the street were given beautiful instruments – but by the seamless technique that only years of serious study with a great teacher can produce. The same when you hear Gigli in his prime, or Jan Peerce in his prime, or Björling or any of those greats. Nothing Pavarotti or Domingo ever recorded gives me that feeling. A few recordings of Carreras do. (If you don't believe me, listen to his La dolcissima effigie from Tokyo, 1976.) Shicoff has done it (hear his Pourquoi me réveiller from Aix-de-Provence, 1979). But here's a young man, in the prime of life and of voice at this very moment, singing the way the gods did in the 1950s!
I had to hear something else, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke. I went to Beczala.com and downloaded Che gelida manina. Now I could see him as well as hear him. (The Lucia was audio only, with a still photo.) Again, the first couple of phrases recalled Björling, while the face – the natural smile and radiance – reminded me of Wunderlich. The clarity of his tones, linked by a faultless legato, were remarkable, giving the eerie impression not only that does he not crack, but that he cannot crack.
So, so many tenors were great but for only a few seasons. (Di Stefano's prime was no more than eight seasons.) There is something in Beczala's singing that tells me he is going to last. How could anyone who went through the trouble of learning to sing that beautifully ever choose the other pathway? If he continues to resist the temptations of bigger sounds and heavier repertoire – and I believe he's going to – I think it's safe to say: We have found the tenor!
Photo of Mr. Beczala © Kurt Pinter