Tenor epidemic spreads to Latvia

“Tenor is not a voice. Tenor is a disease!” Reputedly first uttered by an exasperated voice teacher, this tongue-in-cheek observation has been invoked over the years in response to the flamboyant reputations and popular adulation for celebrity tenors such as Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza and, more recently, Pavarotti.

The vocal pyrotechnics of high voices seem to hold a particular fascination for listeners, as evidenced by the continuing popularity of the original “Three Tenors,” Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. Bestselling compact discs and sold-out concerts abound, and repeated broadcasts of the latter seem to have become a staple of public television fund-raising as well.

The “disease” has become an epidemic, with countless vocalists rushing in to take advantage of the frenzy. A female counterpart, “The Three Sopranos,” is touring and recording successfully. But looking beyond the marketing hoopla this phenomenon has generated, many fine singers have benefitted from the attendant publicity and received welcome exposure to a wider audience.

Latvia has produced its share of world-class voices. While no longer household names, Karl Jorn and Hermann Jadlowker are well known to vocal afficianados and appeared on the world’s great operatic stages years ago. More recently, Jānis Zābers continued this distinguished tradition and is the best-known Latvian tenor of recent times. His international reputation endures thanks in part to his many recordings from the LP era. A memorial fund established last year focuses on preserving this legacy as well as sponsoring vocal competitions, scholarships and concerts. Commemorating what would have been Zābers’ 65th birthday this year (he died tragically young in 1973), the fund has issued this new recording featuring three current leading Latvian tenors.

Nauris Puntulis, Guntars Ruņģis and Miervaldis Jenčs all possess pleasing, powerful voices, and while their grouping in this format is undoubtedly intended to capitalize on the current tenor craze, their splendid talent, enthusiasm and fine vocal technique should not be overlooked. There is no personal information about them in the CD booklet, but biographies posted on the World Wide Web indicate they are in their late 30s and have had extensive training and experience in a variety of operatic roles.

Here they sing a program of Neapolitan songs and arias, many of them staples of the tenor repertoire and said to have been dear to Zabers. Each tenor sings one solo, serving to display the unique character of his voice. Jenčs’ slightly husky timbre is heard to good effect in Cesare Bixio’s song “Parlami d’amore, Mariu!”; Another Bixio song, “Serenata malinconica,” is complemented by Puntulis’ somewhat darker, deeper voice. Ruņģis’ bright, clear voice could be characterized as somewhat Pavarotti-ish, and his powerful, focused, ringing tone is heard to thrilling effect in Verdi’s famous aria “La donna e mobile.”

In the other 11 selections, singers alternate between verses or appear together in various combinations, in the familiar style of the original “Three Tenors.” The quality of their individual voices is clearly distinguishable but blends pleasantly. Perennial favorites such as “Funiculi, funicula,” “Torna a Surriento,” and “Santa Lucia” resound with appropriate swagger, soulfulness and nostalgia. “O sole mio” appears as the now-familiar show-stopper, with all three tenors making their expected sequential entrances on the final refrain, with splendid effect.

Sadly, the fund’s budget apparently did not allow for an orchestral accompaniment. Perhaps the lush, rich orchestral backgrounds accorded to Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras have raised unreasonable expectations, but the synthesized accompaniments to several of the songs on this disc frequently sound jarring and unpleasant. At times the timbres are too obviously electronic in origin and seem distractingly garish. Though admirably clear, the lack of true instrumental perspective sounds particularly artificial when heard over headphones and the unnaturally reverberant acoustic doesn’t help.

Still, the music and the voices should be the primary concern. While a few of the songs may be less familiar, they are well-chosen and their enjoyable variety should appeal to all but the most jaded listener. With talented and committed vocalism such as this, the tenor epidemic needs no cure!

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on SVEIKS.com.)


Piacer d’Amor

Trīs tenori

Jāņa Zābera Piemiņas fonds,  1999


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