By Lawrence Budmen

Italian opera has long thrived on great tenor voices. From the legendary Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli to such 20th century icons as Giuseppe DeStefano, Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker, and Franco Corelli, the allure of great vocalism has ignited sparks in the operas of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). In our own time, the phenomenon of "The Three Tenors" (Jose Carerras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti) has become the Gold Standard of Italianate vocalism. As those three superstars near retirement, the opera world is searching for new successors. When Pavarotti cancelled his scheduled farewell appearances at New York's Metropolitan Opera in Puccini's "Tosca" several seasons ago, Salvatore Licitra (a young Italian tenor already well established at Milan's La Scala Opera) was summoned and received considerable international attention. Last season Licitra was vocally disappointing in a concert version of Bellini's "Norma" in Miami Beach. On December 14 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, he returned in a concert of operatic arias. 

Licitra is not "the next Pavarotti" or "the fourth tenor" (as his publicists have proclaimed). When he does not force his basically attractive voice, Licitra can sing with lyrical sweetness and elegance. His lower register is almost baritonal; his top notes are serviceable rather than ringing. During the first half of his concert, Licitra seemed to be trying to live up to the Pavarotti comparative. In a group of Verdi arias he too often attempted to increase his volume and consistently showed strain in the upper register. Celeste Aida from "Aida" is a cruelly exposed aria with which to open a concert. Here Licitra exhibited unsteadiness and lacked a pure legato line. His high notes were harsh and unattractive. Licitra seemed to lack the lightness and verve for Questa o quella from "Rigoletto." In Macduff's aria Ah, la paterna mano from "Macbeth," Licitra sang with great fervor and a beautiful cantabile line. In this vibrant rendition of Macduff's lament, he reminded the listener of the great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi. Despite some lingering strain, Licitra captured much of the Italianate passion in the scena Forse la soglia attinse…Ma se m'e forze perderti from "Un Ballo in Maschera." 

In the music of Puccini (which dominated the second part of the evening), Licitra came into his own. His Nessun Dorma from "Turandot" was virile and ringing. He sang Tra voi belle from "Manon Lescaut" with wonderful sweetness of vocal timbre and beguilingly graceful phrasing of the musical line - simply irresistible! (Clearly Licitra will be a splendid Des Grieux in "Manon Lescaut." It was a shame that he did not also sing the aria Donna non vi di mai from the same opera. He really seems to have an idiomatic affinity for this first masterpiece of the young Puccini.) Licitra's passionate, intense version of a E lucevan le stelle was thrilling! Here was real heartfelt Italian vocalism par excellence. Turning to the music of Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) Licitra offered a gorgeously lyrical account of the Improvviso from "Andrea Chenier." The role of the revolutionary poet should be a great vehicle for Licitra.

For encores Licitra offered more Puccini - Dick Johnson's aria from "La Fanciulla del West" - sung with throbbing Italianate fervor. The tenor will be singing this role at the Met during the 2007-2008 season. The Italian pop and folk tradition found Licitra on home musical turf. "Non ti Scordar" was sung with meltingly beautiful legato and "Turna a Sorriento" concluded the evening with ringing Italianate vigor. 

Licitra received stellar support from conductor Eugene Kohn (a former James Levine assistant at the Met, former Principal Guest Conductor of the Bonn Opera, and Music Director Emeritus of the Puerto Rico Symphony). Kohn exhibited that most important component of a superior operatic conductor - the ability to musically breathe with the vocalist. Leading an ensemble composed of many former Florida Philharmonic players, Kohn conducted a fiery performance of the Overture to Verdi's "I Vespri Siciliani." He also offered a poetic evocation of the Preludio to "Aida" and a lyrical perusal of the beautiful Intermezzo from Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" - replete with a seamlessly beautiful, almost vocal cantabile line. Kohn really knows how to make this music sing! A rousing performance of the martial Overture to "Le Maschere" by the underrated Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) capped the evening's orchestral offerings. Kohn really captures the raging passions of the Italian operatic idiom. It has been a long time since South Florida has heard operatic conducting of such fiery brilliance. Aside from some poor intonation in the lower strings in the introduction to the "Tosca" aria, the orchestra played with vigor and subtlety and responded splendidly to Kohn's dynamic leadership.

Licitra belongs to a noble operatic tradition. While they were never considered superstars, such tenors as Giuseppe Campora, Flaviano Labo, and Giuseppe Gismondo served the art well. Like such contemporary tenors as Fabio Armiliato and Richard Margison. Licitra sings with passionate commitment in the classics of the Italian opera repertoire. Such fervent vocalism brings new vitality to the timeless melodies of Verdi and Puccini. Viva Italia indeed! 

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