21 May 2013

Rolando Villazón: Verdi (International Opera Stars Series 2013)

It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.

Add these two factors together and the result is a 15-day tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Guerassim Voronkov, presenting a combination of lyric and dramatic numbers which largely eschews the ‘popular hits’ in favour of the less familiar Verdian territory.

The selection has been carefully chosen to avoid potential technical pitfalls and reveal Villazón’s diversity and dramatic assurance. Each aria or scena in this engaging performance was individualised and differentiated — in terms of both musical characterisation and dramatic tone; all were marked by intelligence, composure and much vocal beauty. Villazón may have lost some of the warm lustre and ease which characterised his voice prior to his pre-2009 operation, but he is still capable of producing some lovely shading of the top notes and spinning a wonderfully long line.

Following a well-shaped, deft performance of the overture to Nabucco, Villazón began with the relatively brief cavatina, ‘La mia letizia infondere’ from I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Despite its succinctness, Villazón left us in no doubt of the readiness and ease with which he can adopt a persona — like an actor slipping on a hat or coat to indicate a change of role — and, although the performance was fairly reserved and contained (we’d been pre-warned that he was suffering from a slight cold) the voice was agile and bright.

The Act 3 scena from Il Corsaro, ‘Eccomi prigioniero!’, afforded more space for vocal expansion and dramatic development, moving from an intense accompanied recitative as the imprisoned Corrado laments his lost dreams, to a lyrical outpouring of poignant disillusionment as he realises that his visions of freedom are simply dreams. Here, the pulsing orchestral motifs, echoed in the tenor’s voice which trembled with emotion, presented a complementary contrast to Karen Stephenson’s affecting cello solo. There was both lingering pain in Corrado’s recognition of his own “vane lusinghe!” (“flattering delusions”), and muscular assertion in his desire for the body to be granted a moment’s rest.

Verdi’s output is almost wholly operatic — even the Requiem is dramatic in essence and effect — but in both 1838 and 1845, the composer published sets of six songs for voice and piano, eight of which were later orchestrated by Luciano Berio. In ‘Il mistero’, which tells of a lover’s hidden passions, Villazón combined long-breathed lines with buoyancy and forward motion, although at times the rather dense orchestral textures and pedal points absorbed the voice in its middle to lower registers. The final phrase, “Chè alimento da sè stesso/ Prende amore in nobil cor” (“Because love feeds itself in a noble heart”) was heart-breakingly tender and sweet.

An urgent, nimble rendering of the overture from Luisa Miller — noteworthy for the clarity of the clarinet and flute solos, and for striking dynamic and textural contrasts — was followed by ‘Quando le sere al placido’ which Villazón infused with sustained burning emotion and drama, demonstrating confident breath control.

The ‘Preludio’ to Otello opened the second half, Voronkov drawing, as throughout the evening, a precise account from his players, one characterised by a diverse expressive range and well-crafted overall form. With ‘Ciel, che feci … Ciel pietoso’ from Oberto, Villazón began to relax, building Riccardo’s aria to a powerful climax in the central lines, “Ah no! l’ultimo lament/ è del misero che muor” (“Ah no! These are the last lamenting tones of the wretched man dying”), a full-hearted outpouring of anguished guilt and regret following the duel which kills the eponymous protagonist. After the tenor’s convincing and moving expression of genuine remorse, the legato celli arpeggiation brought some sense of ease as Riccardo prays for pardon for his murderous act.

The concluding number, the rarely heard ‘L’esule’, confirmed — if it were necessary — Villazón’s ability to build broad structures and sustain a firm line, losing nothing of the vibrancy and impact within the longer, substantial form.

Three encores, including a beer-swilling brindisi, allowed the effervescent tenor to indulge in some hyperactive acknowledgement of the audience’s adulation — Villazón leapt about like an irrepressible jack-in-a-box, roses were strewn far and wide, and a female violinist was waltzed from the stage! Jolly japes which seemed to go down well with the tenor’s affectionate fans.

So, having presented ‘The Genius Of Verdi’ on BBC television just five days previously, Villazón now offers us, ‘The Gifts of Villazón’: singer, actor, entertainer, communicator. His passionate belief in this music was evident from the start, and he communicated this conviction with unfailing directness and immediacy. Villazón has recently explained: ’for me the most important reason why he remains modern and popular is because he wanted to reach his audience. He did not want to impress his listeners; he did not try to gain the acceptance and praise of musicologists or critics. His goal was always to serve the drama, to give music to the feelings of his characters and above all, to move us.’ He might well have been describing himself.

Claire Seymour


Overture, Nabucco; ‘La mia letizia infondere’ from I Lombardi; Prelude, I masnadieri; ‘Eccomi prigioniero!’ from Il corsaro; ‘Il mistero’ from 8 Romances for tenor and orchestra (orch. Berio); Overture, ‘Quando le sere al placido’ from Luisa Miller; Prelude, Otello; ‘Ciel, che feci!’ from Oberto; Baletti. ‘O figli, o figli miei!’, ‘Ah,la paterna mano’ from Macbeth; Overture, I vespri siciliani; ‘Deh, pietoso, oh Addolorata’, ‘L’esule’ from 8 Romances for tenor and orchestra (orch. Berio), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre London, Wednesday, 15th May 2013