If one should believe British opera lovers, especially English ones, Jonathan Lemalu is a weak and uninteresting singer who has either paid himself for his CD’s or is otherwise the lucky recipient of EMI’s political-correctness as he is only recorded because he is a New Zealand-born Samoan.
In all probability both camps are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. English critics can be horribly biased and in the past they succeeded in having us believe for a short time that Peter Glossop, Geraint Evans, Joan Carlyle, Elisabeth Harwood and Rosalind Plowright would become stars of the first magnitude; and then we heard the results and we felt cheated. John Steane, the grand old man, of English singer’s critics is a little bit careful when discussing Lemalu’s operatic recital but of course heartily recommends it. A song recital as this one is even more difficult to judge as there are almost no opportunities for the singer to show his strength in either his low or high range. Most songs are smack in the middle of the voice and I cannot say I was stunned by it. Uninteresting, even bleak as his detractors wrote on some opera forum I won’t name. The voice doesn’t sound big (I never heard him in the flesh) but has a good focused core. He knows how to lighten it and has an agreeable piano like in “Come away” (track 18). But indeed, there are no myriad colours and it is not a very exciting timbre. In short, I’d say he is that kind of bass every opera house needs so that one can cast Jake Wallace or Ferrando from its own ranks. It’s possible his ethnicity helped him in getting engagements, but to me he greatly resembles, by the facelessness of his sound, some of his British predecessors such as Michael Langdon, Geraint Evans, Alistair Miles: singers who were not neglected by the major companies, singers one was happy to hear and see in the house though one quickly forgot them afterwards.
I’ll admit, too, that these songs do not stir me to ecstasy. Most of them are somewhat monotonous, without too much melodic inspiration, going along in a kind of Sprechgesang. I listened without looking at the sleeve notes and noticed that the Shakespearean songs sounded a little bit livelier, more interesting than the other ones. This may be because there one hears old-fashioned rhymes, which always make it easier for a composer to stir up some rhythm. But it can also mean that their composers were born before the days of dissonance. Some of the later songs are composed on excellent poems but I fail to hear any added value in the music of Barber, Britten and especially Bolcom (track 23 in particular). As a non-native speaker it struck me that Lemalu’s pronunciation when reciting or singing these songs is not always perfect and sometimes a little bit difficult to understand — a feeling I never have with another non-English bass, Bryn Terfel, who moreover has a more charming and rounded sound. In short, maybe those English opera lovers are a little nearer to the truth than the critics.