Search is on for the next Pavarotti

By Benjamin Ivry The New York Sun

Search Is On For the Next Pavarotti By BENJAMIN IVRY Special to the Sun September 19, 2007 "Who among the tenors vying for Pavarotti's crown is most worthy?" asks Benjamin Ivry. Two weeks ago, politicians, soccer stars, and performing artists crowded the cathedral of Modena, Italy, to pay public homage to the erstwhile "King of the High Cs," tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died recently at age 71 of pancreatic cancer. Now the question arises, who among the tenors vying for Pavarotti's crown is most worthy? Since Pavarotti attained superstar status in 1972 at age 37 by singing Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment" at the Met, the opera world has become a more perilous place, with careers storm-tossed by deadly serious managers and recording executives, all desperate to make a buck. Peru's Juan Diego Flórez is a gifted tenor whose dry, agile tone might make him an artistic heir to the late Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus. Mr. Flórez is now undertaking what seems like an unending series of performances around the globe of "Daughter of the Regiment" — the same opera which launched Pavarotti's career — because audiences flock to hear its grotesquely challenging aria with nine high Cs. The slim Flórez can bang them out, even if he is a trifle shortwinded compared to the powerful Pavarotti. Too bad "Daughter of the Regiment" is a painfully silly, trivial opera, inferior to a bunch of other Donizetti works that might offer Mr. Flórez the possibility of artistic growth. Yet sure enough, the 2007–2008 Met season features Mr. Flórez in "Daughter" alongside French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay. Another great hope of the post-Pavarotti generation, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón has been heavily promoted by Deutsche Grammophon for his excessively veiled, somber quasi-baritonal sound, which makes audiences forget his uncanny physical resemblance to Mister Bean. Mr. Villazón, however, has just been ordered by his physicians to cancel a few months' worth of performances, making his immediate future a question mark. The perils for younger tenors have gone beyond mere health status. The opera world was shocked in 2005 when promising South African tenor Deon van der Walt was shot and killed by his father at his family's vineyard in Paarl, South Africa. Happily, a number of tenors have dodged bullets, whether literal or metaphorical, and survive as worthy successors to Pavarotti. The Mexican lyric tenor Ramón Vargas is a warmly, endearingly refined singer in Rossini's "Tancredi" and Massenet's "Werther" for RCA Red Seal. The Argentinean lyric tenor Marcelo Álvarez has grown in poise and mastery since the start of his career, as proven by a comparison between his earlier recordings and an excellent recent aria CD, "The Tenor's Passion," on Sony Classical. Mr. Álvarez has put on a bit of weight of late, but still looks good and sounds even better. France's Roberto Alagna, although swamped with bad publicity for extra-musical reasons, retains his crown as a superb dramatic voice. And Canada's Ben Heppner, despite vocal crises, remains a survivor after years of singing reputedly unsingable heroic Wagnerian roles. By contrast, other mature tenors still cheered by live audiences, such as Argentina's José Cura; Sicily's Marcello Giordani; Salvatore Licitra, Swiss-born, but of Sicilian origin, and Malta's Joseph Calleja, neglect the pinpoint refinement required for rewarding singing on CD. So perhaps we should look to younger tenors, hoping that they will not eventually wind up as road kill on the tenorial highway. Turkey's Bülent Bezdüz, who turned in an exemplary performance as Fenton in the majestic new LSO Live recording of Verdi's "Falstaff" conducted by Colin Davis, looks like a flamenco dancer in addition to his flashy vocal prowess. An Australian-born Paris resident, Topi Lehtipuu, who has yet to make his New York debut, is an elegant and lyrical performer on Opus Arte DVDs of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" and Mozart's "Così fan tutte." Germany's Jonas Kaufmann, a wholehearted, extroverted singer, recently told "The Guardian," "‘I don't mind my sexy image as long as the music comes first." Mr. Kaufmann is both musical and sexy on EMI DVDs of Wagner's "Tannhäuser," Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," and Paisiello's "Nina," on which he performs alongside Cecilia Bartoli. Germany's admirable Markus Schäfer has honed his artistry on Warner/Teldec CDs conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt of Haydn's "Armida" and Mozart's "Il Re pastore." Russia's Alexey Kudrya, who has won medals in several vocal competitions, has a refined lyric voice ideal for recordings and smaller opera houses. Romania's Teodor-Adrian Ilincai has a very free top range, perhaps a legacy of his early training as an oboist at the arts high school of Suceava, Romania. And American talent should not be neglected. A young American tenor such as Philadelphia-born Stephen Costello has vocal resources especially suited for the German repertory, which should be carefully nurtured for future development. Hartford, Connecticut-born Nicholas Phan, an already accomplished and highly intelligent performer of Rossini and Mozart roles, will doubtless enjoy a bright future. And a South Carolina native, Jason Collins, has a rich voice that could take him to the top. Almost all of these singers are highly presentable onstage and some, like Bryan Griffin, who has performed Mozart and Puccini at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, even display a sense of humor. Mr. Griffin may currently be seen online at YouTube, dressed as the butler in Strauss's "Die Fledermaus" and singing the football fight song, "Bear Down, Chicago Bears." His appearance displays, among other things, a preternatural awareness of the dizzy surrealism of any opera tenor's career, and argues well for the survival of the entire breed. Hail and farewell, Pavarotti, your future legacy is securely in talented hands.