The tenor Javier Camarena’s dimpled, hopeful smile gives little hint of his Vocal Arts recital’s emotional wallop. (Jonathan Murò)
Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

For a tenor who so excites audiences that he has helped overturn the Metropolitan Opera’s traditional ban on encores during a performance, Javier Camarena seems atypically humble.

Make no mistake: Camarena, who will turn 40 this weekend, is a tenor to the tips of his toes. Half of his program for the Vocal Arts DC on Thursday night at the Kennedy Center, accompanied by the colorful if slightly erratic Angel Rodriguez, was songs by Paolo Tosti, the quintessential Italian-art/schmaltz songwriter. He also sang Liszt’s “Three Sonnets of Petrarch” — known in the opera world as one of the few bits of the song literature that Luciano Pavarotti mastered. And the evening was characterized by thrilling singing and ringing high notes, all the way to another tenor staple, “Granada” (popular with his compatriot Placido Domingo), milked to the nth degree in a final, bring-down-the-house encore.

Yet he is one of the least egocentric-seeming tenors ever to take the stage. Even his big, eager, dimpled smile conveys a sense of hopefulness, rather than cockiness. For many opera singers, music serves as a vehicle for the voice. Camarena, by contrast, seems to subsume himself in the music, putting himself so completely at its service that he overcomes it only through heroic efforts and tremendous vocal technique.

Those Petrarch sonnets became a kind of mosaic in which each word was its own intense microcosm of feeling, now sung in a limpid near-whisper, now thrust out fortissimo as if wrung from his bloodied heart. The result was at once dazzling and emotionally draining: each of the three songs built, often, to a fever pitch of emotional anguish.

In a way, Camarena is an old-school tenor. Solid (but not heavy), he plants himself onstage and pours out rivers of sound, lows and ringing top notes and a creamy near-falsetto that makes you want to hear what he sounds like singing French. (The program’s opening set was three Beethoven songs, but, arriving late, I had to watch them on a screen in the Terrace Theater lobby, and thus missed the full impact of his German.)

But he’s not old-school in his earnest intensity. He seems driven to reinvent the music completely, and to unpack new layers of greatness and emotion in something even as relatively light as Tosti’s gorgeous “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” (one of “Quattro canzoni d’Amaranta”), which he began in what for him was a lighter, bell-like mode but which defaulted to larger-than-life anguish. Camarena’s voice is not huge in operatic terms, but he wields it as if it were, creating a uniquely heroic sound with a lyric (that is, lighter) instrument. His voice can be beautiful, but he never focused on that; nor, until the first of his encores, Tosti’s “L’ultima canzone,” did he show much of his vocal mobility – even though he has a full arsenal of bel canto pyrotechnics at his disposal.

For all of the incredible variety of the singing, the evening almost threatened to become emotionally monochromatic, until the final Tosti set and the encores — as so often happens — ushered in a sense of buoyancy, lightness, and even humor. For his second encore, he briefly announced “Ah mes amis,” the famous tenor aria from Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” with its nine high Cs. “But only the end!” he quickly added, and then let fly with the final word of the aria, glorious high C and all. The public would gladly have heard the whole thing, but had to settle — happily — for “Jurame,” by the Mexican composer Maria Grever, and “Granada” for the finish.

Vocal Arts DC will present Julia Bullock on April 18.