A decade ago, the boutique label Universal Music released Angelo Casto e Bel, the debut CD of the very young, very promising lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu, from Albania. In January, Opus Arte followed up with Il Mio Canto, the second recital of an artist who in the meantime has conquered all the principal stages of the operatic world. Blurbs from Plácido Domingo praise the beautiful lyric quality of Pirgu's voice, as well as his superb technique. The press release adds one extra endorsement, from the New York Times: "[Pirgu's] singing sounds spontaneous and unforced, graced by an intuitive play of light and shade and a silken touch in hushed passages." That's about right, I reckoned, only to discover that the uncredited words are my own, originally published three years ago under the headline, "Tenor from the dark side of the moon."
Since that time, Saimir and I have become friends. By the rules of the game my generation grew up with, I should recuse myself now from any critique. Ah, but by now, social media have made logrollers of us all, objectivity be damned, and friendship is no impediment. ¡Adelante! I've made my disclosure. You've been warned. Caveat lector.
Like Saimir's first CD, named for an aria by Donizetti, Il Mio Canto ("My Song") presents his credentials without benefit of a programmatic master plan; a more meaningful translation of the album title would be, "The Way I Sing." Ten years ago, heedless of chronology, Saimir wheeled freely from Handel's contemporary Bononcini to Mozart and light Verdi, back to Paisiello, and on to Massenet. This time, he hopscotches from Donizetti to Richard Strauss by way of Gounod and Massenet. But he concentrates chiefly on Verdi, who accounts for eight of fifteen tracks, including the first and last.
Inevitably, that much Verdi sweeps a tenor into some stormy waters, such as the recitative at the very top of his opening selection, from Simon Boccanegra. A common way (the worst) for an innately lyric voice to cope with such rant is to bark. Instead, Saimir focuses his tone to a sharp point and a true, keen edge. The violent aria that follows pours forth in a sculpted legato made to sting by discreet but biting dramatic accents. The same vivid sensibility and assured technique are selectively at work in excerpts from Verdi's Macbeth, Luisa Miller, and Rigoletto, as well as in the febrile, doom-struck lamentoso of Massenet's Werther ("Pourquoi me réveiller").
In the purely lyrical vein of his early days, Saimir offers two Gounod numbers that might add up to rather much of a muchness—were if not for the subtle contrast he draws between platonic innocence in Faust's "Salut, demeure chaste et pure" and yearning erotic impatience of Roméo's "Ah! Lève-toi, soleil!" In Edgardo's graveyard scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (at nearly eight minutes, the longest number of the album), he strikes exactly the chord the language and music dictate: world-weary, self-pitying, a shade wan perhaps, yet irresistibly poetic.
His art shines at its very brightest in Rodolfo's recitative and aria from Luisa Miller. A forged letter has fallen into the character's hands: supposed proof that his beloved Luisa has played him for a fool. Rodolfo flies into a rage, which in the aria proper gives way to bittersweet remembrance. The vision of happiness lost forever is captured as it might in Schubert, in a major rather than a minor key. The music for the aria's two stanzas is alike, and so is the syntax of Salvadore Cammarano's lyric, unspooling through serpentine subordinate clauses to the same bleak realization. While she gazed into my eyes, while she squeezed my hand in hers... Ah! ... mi tradia...: she was betraying me. As I hung ecstatic on her every word, as she murmured, "I love you...," Ah! ... mi tradia: she was betraying me. Holding the thought and melody in suspension across the span of each stanza takes rare powers of concentration; Saimir rises to the challenge with the poise of a tightrope walker. The softer dynamic he chooses for the second stanzas adds a special eloquence.
In the rising maestro Speranza Scappucci (for the record, another friend), Saimir has the most attentive of partners. Under her baton, the Orchestra del Maggio Musical Fiorentino sets the stage with unerring imagination and care. The gloomy fanfares in the introduction to the scene from Lucia loom like columns in a Gothic cathedral; wind and string soli in the French selections cast an amorous, dreamy spell. Where Faust's aria hovers in contemplation, Roméo presses forward, as if paced one beat to the bar. The euphoria in the prelude to the aria from La Traviata assumes an unusual, Mozartian grace—which, okay, strictly speaking, may not be quite on the money. Fact: Verdi envisioned his "fallen" woman in modern dress. For fear of corrupting public morals, the censor in the Venice of the premiere made him shift the action to the notionally more scarlet early-17th century of Richelieu. To my ears, Speranza's light touch evokes the balletic 18th-century Naples of Così fan tutte. But I can't object.
Here and there, Il Mio Canto does leave me hungry for more. The Italian Singer's aria, from Der Rosenkavalier, is reduced to its first stanza—understandably, since in the opera the second is rudely truncated in full cry. But for concert purposes, the single stanza is too short. Why not copy and paste the missing music from the stanza we have, splicing in the missing lines of the lyric? (The source—no secret—is Molière's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.) As was standard once upon a time in the opera house, the galloping conclusion of the Duke's second-act scene in Rigoletto is omitted; I wish it had not been.
Finally, might there be a way to tighten the screws some more in the wrenching aria from Macbeth? As Macduff mourns his slaughtered children, his smooth phrases seem forged in steel. Yet well along, his language—and only in his language—starts to splinter. E me fuggiasco, occulto, voi chiamavate, voi chiamate invano...: And to me, a runaway in hiding, you cried out, you cried out in vain. In my mind's ear, the intermittent hint of a stutter from this point forward conveys jabs of pathos I have yet to hear in actual sound. Maybe next time.