Is Licitra Tomorrow’s Tenor? The Heir Apparent Appraised

The setting was Cleveland’s vast Public Auditorium; the opera was Verdi’s La Forza del Destino ; and the Metropolitan Opera’s touring cast was an A-list of the 1950’s: Zinka Milanov, Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Cesare Siepi. I was 12 years old and attending my first opera, and even though my vantage point was a football field away from the stage, I sat enraptured for more than three hours, held less by one of Verdi’s most improbable plots than by the volcanic orchestra and feverish voices that filled the hall with one blood-stirring melody after another. Forza was my introduction to a world that has enthralled me ever since, and I still have the great 1955 recording of it-the first complete opera album I ever owned-with the incomparable cast of Renata Tebaldi, Mario del Monaco, Ettore Bastianini, Giulietta Simionato and Siepi, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. For years, I considered it my favorite opera-even after I realized that the masterpieces of Mozart, Wagner and the later Verdi of Otello and Falstaff far surpassed it for musical and dramatic subtlety.

Since then, I’ve seen a handful of Forza s, and none has come close to matching my virgin experience. The Met’s production several seasons ago was so crudely staged and sung that it seemed calculated to justify Julian Budden’s description of the opera’s tormented Calatrava family as “twice as large as life and half as life-like.” Forza , which Verdi composed for the St. Petersburg Opera in 1861, is structured along the lines of a Hollywood chase movie of the 1920’s. With its abrupt swings between revenge and religiosity and a couple of time-outs to accommodate a sexy, rabble-rousing gypsy, it seemed increasingly a relic of a creakier time, better remembered than restaged.

Or so I thought until the other night, when the Collegiate Chorale, with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a splendid cast, produced an unstaged Forza in evening dress at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of the Chorale’s music director, Robert Bass. Concert operas, which allow the audience to suspend disbelief in visual and dramatic matters and give undiluted attention to the music, have a long history in New York of resurrecting neglected masterpieces and vaulting unknown singers into the stratosphere. (I am reminded of that brilliant Semele at Carnegie Hall 18 years ago, which helped usher in the golden age of Handel revivals and launched Kathleen Battle as a superstar.) With this performance, Mr. Bass and company have re-established Forza as a score whose supply of melodic adrenaline may exceed that of any of the composer’s other works. (In many ways, Forza is the most Verdian of his operas.) The evening also confirmed suspicions about a young Italian singer, Salvatore Licitra: He is indeed the likeliest successor to the two dominant tenors of our time, Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo.

I missed Mr. Licitra’s unexpected debut at the Met last May, when he was flown over from Italy at the 11th hour to replace an indisposed Mr. Pavarotti, who had been playing protracted peekaboo with his millions of fans over whether he would or would not end his career with a farewell Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca . The press and a cheering audience immediately anointed the 34-year-old pinch hitter as the big man’s heir apparent, as much for his unruffled command of the stage as for the ease with which his lusty tenor penetrated the farthest reaches of the red velvet barn.

Last year, Sony Classical released three Licitra CD’s: an Il Trovatore and a Tosca , both conducted by Riccardo Muti at La Scala, where Mr. Licitra has become a major draw, and a collection of Puccini and Verdi greatest-hit arias, an album portentously subtitled The Debut . On these recordings, Mr. Licitra is stunning-an immediately communicable singer with a Pavarotti-like relish for the long, liquid phrase and a Domingo-like urgency that pins your ears back with its driving thrust. Yet, mindful of my premature enthusiasm for Roberto Alagna, a previous contender who turned out to have a much smaller voice in person than his early recordings suggested, I reserved judgment until I could hear Mr. Licitra in the flesh.

Almost casually, he exceeded my hopes. A good-looking, broad-faced fellow of classic Italian-tenor build-on the short side, barrel-chested, a touch of salt-and-pepper in his beard-he arrived onstage somewhat furtively and without any apparent preparation (no planting of feet) delivered Don Alvaro’s greeting to the woman he so fatally loves-“Leonora!”-with a ringing, athletic gracefulness. Mr. Licitra is a protégé of one of the exemplary postwar Verdi stylists, Carlo Bergonzi, and he has that great tenor’s unforced elegance of line, command of mezza voce and the capacity to adjust the timbre of his voice to suit the requisite emotion, from a stentorian, almost baritone thickness that promises a great Otello one day, to the reedy plaintiveness of La Traviata ‘s Alfredo.

Listening to Mr. Licitra, I thought of something that one of Renée Fleming’s teachers, Arleen Auger, said to the soprano when she was just starting out: “Imagine the different registers of your voice as a series of hotel floors, each with its own character.” Mr. Licitra navigated the ascent to each floor with seamless ease, finding new colors in each room and demonstrating the peculiarly Italian gift of expansiveness that gives a sense of vistas opening up. At this stage of his career, he sings with a natural abandon that celebrates sheer vocal power over nuance; the goods are all there, but whether he has the sensitivity of his greatest predecessors remains to be seen.

Mr. Licitra was in excellent company. As Leonora, the Russian soprano Maria Guleghina-a woman of exceptional beauty and vocal heft-never let the audience forget that Forza is an opera of inescapable doom. As the vengeful Don Carlo, the baritone Mark Rucker nobly conveyed his obsessive commitment to family honor and matched Mr. Licitra for steely resolve in their great duet, ” Solenne in quest’ora .” Marianne Cornetti delivered a no-nonsense Preziosilla, the gypsy fortuneteller. And the veteran Simon Estes-who was called in at the last minute to replace the highly touted young Bulgarian bass, Julian Konstantinov, as Father Guardiano-was a figure of imposing dignity. Mr. Bass marshaled the troops with rousing panache. (Why is he not heard more often in our orchestra pits?) And everyone onstage, including the beautifully paced choristers and musicians, showed such a palpable delight in the occasion that at one point I wondered whether they, too, had been initiated into opera by this still sturdy, irresistible warhorse.