PUCCINI: Arias from Tosca, Turandot, La fanciulla del West, Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly. VERDI: Arias from Aida, La forza del destino, Simon Boccanegra, Un ballo en maschera and Macbeth
Salvatore Licitra, tenor; London Symphony Orch/Carlo Rizzi, cond.
SONY CLASSICAL 89923 (F) (D) TT:  51:45

Young Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra recently made headlines with his Metropolitan Opera debut which took place May 11, 2002. When it appeared likely the scheduled Luciano Pavarotti would not be able to appear in the gala performance of Puccini's Tosca, Licitra was transported by the Concorde from Italy to New York. Without benefit of a stage rehearsal, Licitra sang the role of Mario Cavaradossi, to generally positive reviews. On the heels of that storybook debut, Sony Classical has issued Salvatore Licitra's first solo album, auspiciously entitled, "The Debut."

In its promotional material, Sony hails Licitra as "the latest in an illustrious tradition that includes Caruso, Gigli, di Stefano, Bergonzi and Pavarotti." When Licitra recorded this album in March of 2002 he was 33. At approximately the same age Carlo Bergonzi and Luciano Pavarotti also recorded solo recitals. Bergonzi's 1958 London disc features arias by Verdi, Meyerbeer, Puccini, Giordano, and Cilea. Pavarotti's 1968 album, also for London, is a Verdi-Donizetti recital. In both of those recitals, Bergonzi and Pavarotti demonstrate that, even at a relatively early stage in their careers, they were already master singers, with voices of exceptional beauty, impeccable technique, and interpretive fire. Indeed, both the Bergonzi and Pavarotti recitals are among their finest recorded efforts.

By contrast, Salvatore Licitra's recital disc suggests numerous problems. Top notes constitute perhaps his strongest asset. They generally ring out with security and authority. But the middle of the voice (as captured on this recording) lacks beauty, often taking on a thin, even whining quality. In addition there is a worrisome lack of security, with frequently more than a hint of a wobble.  Liner notes describe how some years ago Licitra experienced a vocal crisis. According to the essay, Bergonzi came to Licitra's aid: "Bit by bit," the old master found again the fundamental voice that had been there from the start and began building on its natural foundation." "The Debut" recital disc suggests that Licitra has not completely overcome those vocal difficulties.

Listen, for example, to his rendition of "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut. This is a notoriously difficult piece, with a grueling tessitura and long phrases that require exceptional technique. Bergonzi's version on the 1958 recital disc is masterfully delivered, with superb breath control, gorgeous vocal quality, and ardent delivery. By contrast Licitra is in dire straits from the very beginning, struggling to maintain line, pitch and vocal color. Given the opportunities for remakes in the studio, I'm surprised that the producer allowed this rendition to be included. But in that context, it's interesting to note that the press kit from Sony Classical states that "The Debut" features "Che gelida manina" from La boh╦me. In fact the aria is nowhere to be found, despite the fact that there was ample room on the disc for its inclusion.

When a singer is constantly fighting to overcome technical hurdles he is hard-pressed to give much attention to matters of interpretation. Indeed the Licitra recital disc offers little in the way of dramatic insight or involvement. For example, the recitative preceding Alvaro's great aria in La forza del destino suggests virtually none of the pain experienced by Verdi's tragic figure. Riccardo's barcarolle from Un ballo in maschera is devoid of the playful humor captured in recordings by such masters as Gigli and Bergonzi.  I could dwell on other problems in this disc, but not, I think, to any great use. For those who are interested in sampling the work of this young tenor, complete La Scala recordings issued by Sony Classical of Tosca and Il trovatore find Licitra in better vocal estate although to be sure some of the problems outlined above still appear from time to time.

My suspicion is that Salvatore Licitra was going through a particularly bad vocal patch when he recorded this disc. Perhaps there were plans to re-record parts of the recital, but the temptation to take quick advantage of the publicity surrounding his unexpected Met debut was too great. The above is all conjecture on my part. In any event I feel quite certain  in the long run release of "The Debut" will do no service to Licitra.

K.M.  (July 2002)