La Gioconda – Cielo e mar
Adriana Lecouvreur – La dolcissima effigie sorridente; L’anima ho stanca
Il giuramento – La dea di tutti i cor!; Compita è omai … Fu celeste quel contento
Mefistofele – Dai campi, dai prati; Giunto sul passo estremo
Maristella – Io conosco un giardino
Fosca – Intenditi con Dio! … Ah! Se tu sei fra gli angeli
Simon Boccanegra – O inferno! Amelia qui! … Sento avvampar
Poliuto – Veleno è l’aura ch’io respiro! … Sfolgorò divino raggio
Il figliuol prodigo – Il padre! Il padre mio! … Tenda natal
Luisa Miller – Oh! fede negar potessi … Quando le sere al placido; L’ara o l’avello apprestami
Rolando Villazón (tenor)
Coro Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Recorded March 2007 in Auditorium, Milan
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: July 2008
CD No: DG 477 7224
Duration: 57 minutes
Rolando Villazón’s first solo recital for Deutsche Grammophon is billed as a collection of “buried treasure”, unfamiliar Italian arias. However, most are conventional recital fodder for a lyric tenor. An interview is included in the booklet. According to this, the others are the fruits of the singer’s research into lesser-known corners of the operatic repertoire. The qualification was whether they moved him. The evidence for that is quite clear in the whole-hearted commitment with which Villazón performs what is not always very distinguished music.
The contents of the disc are thoughtfully constructed. Amidst the hype, Villazón reveals the planning behind the selection and ordering of the arias, as well as his approach to the varying styles. Thematically his intention is to progress from an idealistic vision of love to the disillusionment and suffering it can bring, while stylistically he makes a journey from lyricism to abandon as he moves from bel canto to verismo.
The opening offering is ‘Cielo e mar’, a recital favourite, though the opera “La Gioconda” is a rarity in the theatre. The role of the pirate Enzo has been performed by many of the strong lyric tenors. There is something rather throaty in Villazón’s tone production, and the rendition is routine. The prominence of the orchestra at the climax, contesting the centre of attention with the voice, is a typical feature of the recording.
The first short solo, ‘La dolcissima effigie’, from Cilea’s best-known opera is treated as a display-piece and occupies for the most part a high dynamic level. Cilea scatters single and double piano markings from beginning to end but both Villazón, and Daniele Callegari, and then contrarily repeat the dose at the end. The singer’s phrase “Bella tu sei” should provide a soft contrast but this function is neglected. Some tenderness should punctuate this excess of fervour.
In the first Mercadante aria Villazón traces a sensitive line, undistorted by emotional pressure, until the final phrases, where the quadruple repetition of the word “No” tempts him to become excessively demonstrative. ‘Dai campi, dai prati’ is nicely shaped, with the assigned diminuendo at the end of the opening section observed, at least within this singer’s parameters; some distinguished predecessors do it with greater allure. The climax is not excessively pushed. Then comes the most rewarding discovery, the love-song from Giuseppe Pietri’s “Maristella”. Villazón adopts the lighter, smiling quality inherent in the composer’s operetta-influenced style, with its glittering orchestration and sweeping string doubling of the vocal line, to the manner born.
The downside of love arrives with an aria by Antônio Carlos Gomes, whose journey from South America to Italy, both geographically and musically, must have some resonance for this Mexican tenor. A too-crude switch of approach marks this transition; a highly lachrymose delivery of the recitative and a highlighting of orchestral detail are features that thereafter recur uncomfortably often. One wonders who decided upon this. With its powerful orchestral gestures in the recitative followed by massed violins over lower-string tremolos for the repeat of the main tune in the aria, the Gomes itself justifies the change – but the break into melodrama does not conceal a musical language that was already outdated in 1873. Much the same applies to the aria from Ponchielli’s “Il figliuol prodigo” (The Prodigal Son), where arguably perhaps only by drenching it with emotion can the music be brought to life.
For an operatic performer who attracts much praise for the conviction of his acting, Villazón is prone in some of these arias to ham up things up. ‘L’anima ho stanca’, Maurizio’s appeal to the Princess from Act Two of “Adriana Lecouvreur”, is milked for every drop of feeling. This is defensible, but I would contest it being applied to middle-period Verdi. Gabriele’s aria dates from the original 1857 version of “Simon Boccanegra”. In the recitative the vehemence of both the singing and its support verges on brutality. Surprisingly, the aria is delivered in an almost mechanical way. Amidst all this excess, there is some restraint to appreciate, notably in the beautiful elegiac second aria from “Il giuramento”. On the plus side, Villazón’s enunciation of Italian words is idiomatic and eloquent.
It is to be hoped that Villazón finds stability in his career, and he will surely need to settle into a particular Fach. This release was recorded before he experienced the vocal crisis that led him to take a five-month sabbatical and cancel several high-profile engagements. Even if the length of his withdrawal and his own analysis of the experience plays down its importance, the cracking on a number of high notes in a Barcelona “Manon” (Massenet) which led to it is an ominous sign of significant vocal discomfort. That the voice should falter in this opera is relevant to the issue of the singer’s natural vocal location. The role of Des Grieux is a hybrid: after the aria known as ‘Dream’ in Act Two, sung in a restrained half-voice, the singer has to summon powerful resources to dismiss from his mind the image of the woman who dogs his steps. Few tenors feel comfortable in both arias: even the protean Plácido Domingo steered clear of the role after essaying it in his late twenties.
There is nothing from “Manon” in this recital but there are contradictions in the repertoire that Villazón has chosen. The scena from Donizetti’s “Poliuto” is interesting. Is Villazón familiar with the modern history of this work? It was revived at La Scala in 1960, one of the most significant events in the resurgence of Donizetti’s tragic operas, when Maria Callas was partnered by a full-blown tenore di forza, Franco Corelli. I cannot believe that Villazón sees himself in that class but there are similarities in tone quality and approach to the music: Villazón cultivates the natural vibrato in his voice to enhance the emotional impact of his singing. The pressure he puts onto the recitative is unfitting and indulgent but the aria itself receives more lyrical treatment.
Any vocal problems suffered by a lyric tenor such as Villazón can hardly fail to be seen in the light of the disappointing early decline suffered by Giuseppe di Stefano and José Carreras. The scenario which affected them accompanies the arrival of any new one: the standard Italian and French operatic repertoire is so based upon such voices that newcomers are seized upon hungrily by management. The temptation is for the artists to sing too often and to undertake too many roles at the margins of their vocal capacity.
Villazón has a vocal personality that makes him vulnerable to being over-stretched. He has a strong baritonal foundation, from which grow emotively affecting, vibrant high notes. The impact of the latter can be enhanced by allowing them to emerge as ‘open’ sounds – but with the threat to vocal longevity or even survival. This is regarded by many vocal experts as the key to Di Stefano’s decline, while Carreras’s relatively light lyric voice was turned leathery and strained by the assumption of roles such as Radames (“Aida”) and Manrico (“Il trovatore”), where the power required was simply not within his natural gifts.
In Villazón’s collection, the selection from “Luisa Miller” may hold the key. Unusually complete but without the connecting passage, it suggests that Villazón’s true home is as a strong lyric tenor. After indignant declamation of the recitative, he delivers the aria with an air of gentle regret, before stepping up the power again during the second verse, in line with the melodramatic approach already observed.
This is a fascinating recital, which, however, poses more questions than are answered. Full texts and translations are provided, though without any explanation of dramatic context.