The prospect of baritone-turned-tenor Jonathan Tetelman, 35, bringing his strong, dark, ringing, and perfectly produced instrument to many of Puccini’s most beloved arias and scenes is mouthwatering. Add in his tall and handsome slimness — which Deutsche Grammophon capitalizes on with multiple fashion-model poses in the liner notes for his latest recording, The Great Puccini — and the vibrant drive and passion in his voice, and Tetelman’s potential as one of the world’s leading Puccini tenors is evident.
Alas, as in his debut album, Arias, and in his performance in San Francisco Opera’s 2022 production of La traviata, the tenor’s too-metronomic approach to Italian Romantic repertoire occasionally dismays. While in his first album, there was a temptation to attribute this rigidity to the demands of his conductors or an accession to no-nonsense “modern style,” it’s dismaying to encounter it yet again.
Take, for example, the two arias that open The Great Puccini, “Donna non vidi mai” from Manon Lescaut and the obligatory “Nessun dorma” from Turandot. With the caveat that Tetelman has not yet sung in these operas onstage, these two borderline ecstatic proclamations of love seem tailor-made for rhapsodic lingering.
Yet in the former, as much as Tetelman sings sincerely and with abundant passion and excellent diction, he rushes the high notes as if refusing to fully indulge in his feelings. “How those fragrant words / permeate my spirit / and caress my quivering heartstrings,” the character Des Grieux sings in this glorious aria. As much as the singer should sound like someone whose heart is beating fast, he needs to wrap his voice around every phrase and sing as though this love will last a lifetime. Here, Tetelman falls somewhat short.
Turn to “Nessun dorma,” where we discover him clipping notes at the ends of a few phrases and again rejecting opportunities to milk Puccini’s music for all it’s worth. Tetelman may have been inspired to become an opera singer at age 10 after his teacher played Luciano Pavarotti’s version of “Nessun dorma” from The Three Tenors concert CD, but did he listen to Pavarotti’s earlier and much freer rendition from the 1972 recording of Turandot conducted by Zubin Mehta?
Tetelman does far better in a role which he has sung numerous times, Rodolfo in La bohème. The tenor gives us three excerpts from the opera, and in two of them, he is joined by soprano Federica Lombardi’s excellent Mimi. In “Che gelida manina,” that benchmark Puccini classic, Tetelman begins fetchingly, with lovely sweetness in the first phrases. He also handles many of the subsequent phrases poetically and seems to savor the meaning of key words. Yet in the final phrases after his glorious high C, precisely where Puccini’s markings encourage the performer to linger, he moves too fast. The same is true in an otherwise frequently glorious rendition of “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca.
Perhaps I am leaning too hard into criticism. Tetelman sings with noticeably more freedom here than on his debut album, and with one of the finest tenor voices of the last 25 years. His soft lower range is beautiful in “Ah! Manon, mi tradisce” from Manon Lescaut, and his vehemence convinces. He could have stretched out the last few words more, but the ending is nonetheless gorgeous. And his passion in the final track on the album, “Torna ai felici di” from Le Villi, is superb.
And let’s not forget that the great tenors of the past committed their own stylistic sins. Still, when I turn to Tetelman’s “Ch’ella mi creda” from La fanciulla del West, I long for the heartbreaking lingering and extra freedom many other singers have brought to the aria, not least Franco Corelli in his Metropolitan Opera performance from Jan. 8, 1966.
Five out of five stars for vocalism and four and a half stars for artistry, with a few of the final star’s points still covered by a reluctance to fully submit to what Puccini’s music demands.