Special: 4 tenors from Malta
Paul Asciak was born in Valletta, Malta on January 28, 1923. His talent showed early enough and he spent years of singing in the famed St James Choir, Valletta. He started taking his first singing lessons with Maltese tenor Nicolò Baldacchino. He made his first operatic debut as Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana at the Radio City Opera House in Malta on December 8, 1946. In January 1950 after being coached by Mro Luigi Cantoni, Paul Asciak took the role of Radamés in Verdi’s Aida with the visiting Italian Opera Company “Impresa Cantoni” at The Radio City Opera House in Malta. In the same year Asciak was invited to sing with the visiting famous Italian tenor Tito Schipa and with the renowned Italian soprano Maria Caniglia in March and May respectively. He was encouraged to further his studies by the latter and he went to Rome in March 1950.
Caniglia’s initiative led to Asciak’s being entrusted to Mro Alberto Paoletti of Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera. In 1951 he won the Concorso per Giovani Cantanti Lirici together with among others Franco Corelli and Anita Cerquetti. He was granted a bursary for voice and histrionic training under the guidance of Mro Luigi Ricci and Riccardo Picozzi at the Teatro dell’Opera, Rome. In the same theatre’s Spoleto production of Aida in 1951, Anita Cerquetti singing the title role, Asciak sang the part of Radamés. Other leading roles in Italy were in Andrea Chénier, Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Tosca, Il Trovatore and Norma.
Here are some free translations from the Italian press published during the above period in Italy.
Regarding his debut in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Calabria on 18 December 1950:
“Paul Asciak was the protagonist giving the role of Manrico impetus and passion” (Il Messaggero di Roma).
In the title role of Andrea Chénier in Fermo, “Il Messaggero” calls him
“… a true revelation … the all-round musicality of this artist, the truly extraordinary vocal volume will surely lead him to join company with leading opera singers in Italy.”
“Among the interpreters most notable was the young and already well-honed tenor Paul Ascia’ (sic) as Chénier … for his dramatic acting, for his richly generous vocal prowess and the high notes because of which he had to concede an encore to unanimous acclaim.” (Il Giornale d’Italia)
About his role as Radamés in Verdi’s Aida at Spoleto:
“… he possesses a beautiful timbre, the kind of voice that taxing operas like Aida require and also that he is an interpreter of great feeling. … He showed that he has great vocal abilities (rich in top notes). He could look forward to a great future … the public understood this and applauded him greatly.”
(Il Messagiero di Roma)
Asciak joined the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 1952 as tenor soloist, also as guest artist and up to 1958 he had appeared over fifty times in various roles such as Melot in Tristan und Isolde, the Tenor Singer in Der Rosenkavalier, Flavioin Norma, Pinkerton in Butterfly, Radamés in Aida, apart from other operatic roles. He sang with the Welsh National Opera Company during its early years, the Dublin Grand Opera, Carl Rosa Opera Company, and others up to 1961. He performed several times on BBC sound and vision as well as on ITV (1952-59). Other leading roles in the UK included Martha, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, La Fanciulla del West (BBC TV), Carmen, Balfe’s Bohemian Girl and also the part of Arvino in I Lombardi. Asciak gave numerous concerts and recitals also including Verdi’s Requiem, mainly in Wales.
Here are some quotes from the British and Irish press relevant to Asciak’s career in the British Isles.
Of his participation as Manrico in Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Ilford, The Stage said that:
”It is Paul Asciak from Covent Garden, who brings the necessary vocal intensity, emphasizing the heroic as well as the lyrical qualities of the music. His portrait […] has both eloquence and nobility; his singing clean and assured throughout, shows admirable bravura in Di quella pira.”
Opera said that
” … he had a truly Verdian conception of the part and his performance was far more musical than that of any singer in the role at Covent Garden during the last two years.”
As Pinkerton in Covent Garden’s production of Puccini’sMadame Butterfly on tour in Manchester:
“Paul Asciak was in excellent voice as Pinkerton.” (News Chronicle)
“Paul Asciak as Pinkerton has personality and he too sang with distinction.”
(The Evening Chronicle)
Of his Radamés in Aida at the R.O.H., Covent Garden,
“This is a role to which he is naturally suited by his heroic tone and full-blooded Italian style … has a virile conviction that has been lacking in [others’s] previous performances of the part at the R.O.H … exhilarating warmth of tone and obvious understanding of the spirit of Verdi’s music.” (The Stage)
Asciak’s participation in the BBC-TV’s production of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West led to the following comments:
“Best of all Paul Asciak, who is Maltese by birth, managed to sing a lusty and likeable Ch’ella mi creda while the ropes of the lynching party really looked as if they were biting into his shoulders” (The Listener)
Of his Radamés in Dublin in a production by the Grand Opera Society:
“Paul Asciak … has a full, warm tenor voice particularly good in the upper register … has satisfying fire and vigour which made credible the character of a simple man of action who unwittingly betrayed his country.” (The Irish Independent)
Of Welsh National Opera’s I Lombardi at Sadlers Wells in which Asciak sang Arvino:
“Last night we were given Verdi’s early I Lombardi … Pagano, Arvino and Oronte were in the same sympathetic, and of most part, firm and reliable hands as last year” (The Times)
Of the Welsh National Opera’s Il Trovatore:
“… the Manrico of Paul Asciak was one of the best things I have seen him do […] he gave to his singing and his acting an intensity and authority that was never less impressive” (Western Mail)
“Peter Glossop’s Count di Luna was beautifully sung and impressively acted, while Paul Asciak provided a Manrico whose passion evenly matched that of his enemy. The two were perfect foils to each other.”
(Liverpool Daily Post)
Of his Canio in Pagliacci,
“Paul Asciak’s Canio contributed the most glorious principal singing. A fine and pure voice without one lapse into aggression” (South Wales Echo)
Of his Duke in Rigoletto:
“… threw caution to the wind and burst out into Italian in La donna è mobile and gave us a sound that seemed much more like the genuine operatic article than anything else that had happened all the evening. The role had immediately won our sympathies because it was intelligently thought and sincerely sung. He … frequently gave us a rich ringing tenor which was eminently satisfying. There was often a suggestion of musical taste and character that made the Duke’s music highly attractive.”
(South Wales Argus)
On Pagliacci for Carl Rosa Opera Company:
“… but the honours of the evening go to Paul Asciak’s Canio. This is a glorious tenor voice, freely produced, finely modulated and prodigal of tone.” (Evening Telegraph)
His guest appearances in Malta in which he played the leading role in Ernani, Carmen, Aida, Il Trovatore, Pagliacci and Verdi’s Otello, with visiting Italian companies were eagerly looked forward to and received much critical and popular acclaim.
Comments regarding the above include the following, some of which are freely translated from Italian:
In Ernani: “Paul Asciak gave a good interpretation of the title role … he sang an inspiring duet with De Silva in Act II. He also sang Act IV with style and crowned a good performance with his Solingo, errante misero” …
(Times of Malta)
“… it was a full house … they paid homage to their compatriot tenor Paul Asciak who very ably sang the role of Ernani.”
In Carmen (sung in Italian):
“The Flower Song was sung beautifully and with the necessary pathos … it completely deserved the applause of the audience who insisted upon and was given an encore. His acting in the last scene of Act III was convincing and expressive as was his singing. In Act IV…the interpretation of his mad jealousy contrasted admirably with Franca Sacchi’s piquant indifference.”
(Times of Malta)
“Tenor Paul Asciak was much applauded in the Flower Song as well as for his excellence in Act IV.”
(Rassegna Melodrammatica, Milan)
On Il Trovatore:
“Paul charmed his admirers with a voice of fine and supple quality highly agreeable timbre… naturally was recipient of thunderous applause at the end of the acts … it was during the prison scene in the last act that he shone at his best and was able to display to the full warmth and beauty of his voice.”
(Times of Malta)
“The chief attraction was undoubtedly the appearance of Paul Asciak, of whom we should all be proud. His voice has acquired greater power of interpretation and his acting showed a thorough knowledge of the role of Manrico. The famous Di quella pira brought forth salvos of applause from the audience.”
(Sunday Times of Malta)
“Great too was the success of Il Trovatore, let it be said, enhanced by the presence on stage of Maltese tenor Paul Asciak as a full-blooded and forceful Manrico.” (Rassegna Melodrammatica,
Of his title role in Verdi’s Otello:
“He gave a performance seldom seen in Malta. His acting and singing were of the best and balanced – he did not attempt to excel in acting to cover any weaknesses in singing or vice-versa, but, balanced both with the result that he gave a first-class show.”
(The Sunday Times of Malta)
“Asciak negotiated the innumerable pitfalls of the intricate score with commendable skill. He gave a fine rendering of the fiendishly exciting Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro of the second [act] finale. He was, one felt, at his best in (Niun mi tema) in the death scene – and this in spite of the grievous handicap imposed on him by the scenographer.”
(Times of Malta)
Throughout his operatic career other than the above, Asciak performed in the company of renowned singers like Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, Anita Cerquetti, Dame Joan Hammond, Amy Shuard, Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Margreta Elkins, Carlo Tagliabue, Benvenuto Franci, Piero Cappuccilli, Peter Glossop, Sir Geraint Evans, Giulio Neri, Giacomo Vaghi, Ludwig Suthaus, Hans Braun and conductors like Anton Guadagno, Ottavio Ziino, Vittorio Gui, Peter Gellhorn, John Pritchard, Eric Kleiber, Sir John Barbirolli, Sir Charles Groves and others.
Asciak retired from the stage in 1961 and dedicated his time to his family and teaching. He lent his vast experience to a number of young Maltese singers by teaching them vocal technique and interpretation, among tenor Joseph Calleja. It is undoubtedly their names will remain indelibly linked. Paul Asciak passed away on the 21st pf April, 2015.
Paul Asciak singing Recondita Armonia