Even the album’s title, Pene Pati, signals that the San Francisco-trained Samoan tenor has arrived. In a Warner Classics recital, Pati packs his debut to its limit with over 79 minutes of arias from the Italian and French lyric repertoire.
The album is far more than a collection of “expecteds.” Yes, there are the great arias from Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Jules Massenet’s Manon, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Roberto Devereux, and Verdi’s Rigoletto — “La donna è mobile” is sung with equal amounts of point, vigor, and grace, and the final high note is very fine. But Pati and the Orchestre National de Bordeaux Aquitaine under Emmanuel Villaume also give us arias from Rossini’s less encountered Guillaume Tell and Moïse et Pharaon, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and L’étoile du nord, Verdi’s La battaglia di Legnano, Gounod’s Polyeucte, and Benjamin Godard’s Jocelyn. It’s been a long time since a single tenor dared put these all together. I’m not sure anyone ever has.
That Pati has grown as an artist since his first Merola and Adler days in San Francisco is easily discerned by comparing his live 2015 performance of the beloved “Una furtiva lagrima” with the studio version that, along with everything else on the 25-track album, was recorded last August. Although voices naturally vary day to day, the studio recording is firmer and steadier of vibrato, with more give-and-take between soft singing and declamation. Pati’s soft notes are quite honeyed, bearing comparison with the voices of the young Tito Schipa, Jussi Björling, Georges Thill, and Richard Crooks.
As much as one might be inclined to debate endlessly over whether Schipa’s style represents pure bel canto or 1930s “bel hamo,” I do wish Pati and Villaume had incorporated more of that singer’s incomparable push-and-pull into their performances. The metronomic orchestral introduction is especially disappointing. Still, it’s a very fine performance.
Pati has his own sound. Occasionally, as in the first selection from Rigoletto, he sounds a bit choked, but 99 percent of the time, he’s in free and ringing form. As if trying to take on Bryan Hymel, he sings “Asile héréditaire ... Amis, amis” (Ancestral refuge … Friends assist me, from Guillaume Tell) thrillingly and caps it with an impossibly long high note. Just when I thought that Nadine Sierra was the queen of long-held highs, Pati outdoes her with a 19-second high C. You must hear this.
Rather than risk lessening the joys of discovery, I’ll point you to a few highlights: the gorgeous soft singing and fine violin solo in the excerpt from Les Huguenots, the grace in the Act 3 excerpts from Roberto Devereux, and the lovely Berceuse from Jocelyn. Add to that Pene’s utter commitment and innate beauty of voice, and you have an album that he, his teacher Cesar Ulloa, and every San Francisco Opera devotee can feel proud of. After all, isn’t it your love and applause that have helped Pati soar?