Magazine article Gramophone

Jose Carreras: Richard Fairman Celebrates the Career of the Barcelona-Born Star Who Sang for Karajan and Bernstein before Conquering Illness and Becoming Part of the Three Tenors Phenomenon

Magazine article Gramophone

Jose Carreras: Richard Fairman Celebrates the Career of the Barcelona-Born Star Who Sang for Karajan and Bernstein before Conquering Illness and Becoming Part of the Three Tenors Phenomenon

Article excerpt

Memorably, it was only a year or two into his international career that I first heard a promising young Spanish tenor called Jose Carreras. The occasion was La traviata at the Royal Opera House in 1974, when he was paired with another up-and-coming young singer, Ileana Cotrubas. What a team they made so engaging, so full of feeling. A friend made an off-air recording of the BBC broadcast and it still makes thrilling listening today. What other Violetta and Alfredo in living memory have given heart and soul to the opera as they did?

In retrospect, everything that was to make Carreras one of the world's most sought-after tenors was already present in that Traviata. He sang with a warm, burnished sound, looked good, and invested each phrase with an ardour that made the heart beat faster. The emotional electricity of a Carreras performance crackled in the air.

For a singer who had only made his professional debut as a tenor in 1970, Carreras's career shot out of the starting gate. In part, at least, that was thanks to the encouragement of a champion and fellow native of Barcelona, Montserrat Caballe. Of Caballe, Carreras has said: 'Along with Maria Callas, she was the greatest.' Their recordings together include Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci with Riccardo Muti, Un hallo in maschera with Colin Davis, and II corsaro in Philips's valuable early Verdi series, each glowing with that Mediterranean sound they shared, even if in other respects Carreras and Caballe were rather different singers.

On stage, though, there was another partnership that was even more memorable in the early years. Katia Ricciarelli was born in the same year as Carreras, 1946, and perhaps fate intended them to play opera's great loving couples --Donizetti's Lucia and Edgardo, Leonora and Manrico in II trovatore, best of all Mimi and Rodolfo, where Ricciarelli was so tender and limpid, Carreras so boyish and impulsive. The closing minutes of their La boheme were nearly unbearable, so unaffected were they together--not like opera at all, more like real life. A few years later I attended the Philips recording sessions with Colin Davis and can still see them creeping off stage hand in hand during the final bars of the Act 1 love duet, trying not to make the floorboards squeak. (They never managed it. A retake had to be done with them positioned at the back.)

These were the golden years, when Carreras's voice gloried in its youthful freshness. The voice was a full, lyric tenor: not agile enough for Rossini, though his bel canto roles did include a wonderfully vulnerable and touching Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore. In Verdi, he was a headstrong Don Carlo and a Riccardo at once effervescent and authoritative in Un hallo in maschera.

His Werther embodied the matinee idol poet, even if the voice was never quite one for Gallic elegance. All of these roles can be heard on disc.

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The move into more dramatic roles in the latter part of the 1980s was criticised by some as being a step too far. Certainly, the voice sometimes had a steely thread, but in the best of his later roles--Andrea Chenier, perhaps Radames--there was no question that Carreras had the strength of voice and personality to carry them off. Then came leukaemia and an inevitable reduction in his opera performances. 'I had one career before the illness, another afterwards,' he said. 'I had to try to adapt to the situation. …

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