Dennis O'Neill, St John's, Smith Square London

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The Independent Culture

Beware bouts of severe indigestion. That was the reason given by Rosenblatt Solicitors, the disappointed sponsor of this St John's, Smith Square recital, for Decca's much-promoted Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's non-appearance on Monday. Maybe they have bank holidays in Malta, too.

Beware bouts of severe indigestion. That was the reason given by Rosenblatt Solicitors, the disappointed sponsor of this St John's, Smith Square recital, for Decca's much-promoted Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's non-appearance on Monday. Maybe they have bank holidays in Malta, too.

So, instead of the mellifluous Mediterranean, we had the best of the valleys. And who could complain? Dennis O'Neill once lived opposite a friend of mine in Cardiff, and his morning warm-ups were worth 50 quid a throw. This is one of our great performers, and if there is slight evidence of tiring as he enters the Grand Old Man class, those top notes are as spot-on and bracing as ever.

And, as he proved with Federico's emotive lament from Cilea's L'Arlesiana, "E la solita storia nel pastore", O'Neill has a baritone range to envy, too, cultivated in his chilling - and almost cult - Canio in WNO's Pagliacci). Likewise, in the hushed low notes that preface the opening leap of Nemorino's "Quanto e bella", from L'Elisir d'amore; or in the song "Me voglio fa'na casa", also by Donizetti, in which O'Neill rides the vocal line like a friendly caballo. When he rakes it back three notches and sings piano - whether in the hushed ending of Bellini's arietta "Ma rendi pur contento", or the cooing serenades of Paolo Tosti's "A vuchella" and "L'ultima canzone", which Caruso, Gigli and Schipa made famous before Corelli and Bruson were even thought of - you hear how much he's learned from his masters.

O'Neill is a dramatically engaging performer, and - in their tradition - a fine singer, too. His Italian could be a fraction sharper now: here and there, bristling consonants got lost. The same might be said for his French: two faultless big climaxes uplifted "Pourquoi me reveiller?", from Werther, but the victorious Mylio's aubade from Lalo's wonderful 1888 opera Le Roi d'Ys, about the legendary Breton city beneath the waves, seemed too cutting for this subtle evocation of the conquering hero's love for Rozenn.

One thought of Debussy's La Cathédrale engloutie, and the composer's ghost seemed to reappear elsewhere. O'Neill's fine accompanist, Ingrid Surgenor, delivered the introduction to Puccini's "Recondita armonia" from Tosca with the bell-like clarity of Debussy playing his own music; and in Gastaldon's "O quante dolceae", there's a passage straight out of "La fille aux cheveux de lin".

His roared "Nessun dorma" encore was vulgar: no wonder no one got any sleep. But his Verdi was gripping: "Quando le sere" from Luisa Miller, "Nun mi tema" from Otello. In cadenza, he's magnificent. All the O'Neill magic and dramatic greatness was there. Not bad for an 11th-hour stand-in.

Joseph Calleja sings at the Hampton Court Festival Opera Gala, 17 June ( www.hamptoncourtfestival.com)

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