Falling in love

…with a Mexican tenor, Javier Caramena. Not a young tenor. He’s 37. Just making his Met Opera debut this season in La Sonnambula.

But just watch and hear him sing “Una furtiva lagrima.” In my last post I’d longed for the far-gone days when Mario Lanza sang without holding back, with full passion, without an overlay of classical-music respectability. I said I longed to go back in a time machine to be in a world where people did that, and where a large, popular audience responded.

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Caramena gives me that time machine. Well, not really. There’s something in him that makes him seem contemporary. I wouldn’t mistake him for someone who’d come here from the 1950s. But he sings with the passion they often had, the 1000% commitment. “Con abbandono,” reads a direction you’ll find in Italian opera scores — telling the singer to sing with abandon. Camarena does that. Treating the music in such a simple and direct way, as if it was simply his, with nothing classical about it. 

He sings beautifully, too. In my Juilliard course this week (the course on the future of classical music), my students and I talked — after listening to some old classical recordings — about how important technical precision might be, about whether we stress it too much in our time, at the expense, perhaps, of creative expression.

Camarena doesn’t force that choice. You can’t fault his precision. A lovely example: near the end of the aria’s cadenza come two phrases, identical except that the first goes up to the major sixth of the scale, and the second to the minor sixth. It’s a great test of how beautifully in tune a tenor sings. If the major and minor variants of the note are not just distinct, but radiant with contrasting color, then the tenor has an ear. Camamena is radiant.

And the pauses! In the cadenza, I  mean. They might be more eloquent than Camarena’s singing. They glow. Of course, it’s not really right to treat the pauses as something he doesn’t sing. He creates them. He makes them glow. They’re part of his singing. But so often, when this aria is sung, they’re simply pauses. The singing stops. Camarena lights the silence. He makes it his.

And finally I love what he does with his hands. He doesn’t do realistic acting, which in opera can sometimes seem strange, and even cut against the music, if singers try to act as if they weren’t singing. It’s not that he departs from character, but he presents the aria as something sung, using his hands as I imagine he would in a recital. Rather than make the drama less convincing, it makes it real, because Camarena acknowledges the most basic thing that’s going on, which is that he’s singing.

Not many singers know how to do this. Or what to do with their hands in any circumstances. There seems to be a fear of doing something that might be criticized as hokey, as taking attention away from the music, of being inappropriate, or old-fashioned. Camarena doesn’t seem to have any such thoughts. He’s so natural on stage that this alone might make me cry. But then he’s natural in the service of something touching and gorgeous, and so I fall in love.

Go to YouTube, and you’ll see he has many videos. Another I loved was Camarena’s aria in La sonnambulain a 2010 Paris performance with a very touching Natalie Dessay (who barely sings — it’s the tenor’s scene — which makes it more striking that she’s so memorable).

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  1. Ariel says

    One entertains the thought that Mr. Sandow is spending much too much time at Juilliard
    or is suffering from cabin fever –it has been
    a tough winter .That he finds Mr. Camarena
    the answer to his quest is gratifying
    though I can name five others equally as good if not better, but not to get into which
    tenor is what since it is all personal taste
    my question to Mr. Sandow is “what does he
    mean by” without an overlay of classical-music respectability “? I think it important to
    know if only to understand better what prompts Mr. Sandow in this search for the true expression of music besides citing the likes of Lanza, Camarena etc .I recall a great
    singer from my time (Souzay) who didn’t use
    his hands and barely moved but did manage to express the music completely by the artistic
    use only of his voice and left histrionics to others . I suppose there is a difference in
    hearing music as to watching music.