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Recordings

13 Feb 2005

DONIZETTI: L’elisir D’amore

Of today’s opera stars, tenor Rolando Villazón may be the “hottest” (if readers will allow that Entertainment Tonight term). He has gone from being an Operalia winner a few years back to assuming leading roles in the major houses of Europe and the U.S. His second major label recital disc has just been released to even higher praise than his first received, which appeared on many “best of the year lists” for 2004. Wherever he appears, major profiles and interviews appear in the local papers. He’s so hot he may be contributing to global warming.

Gaetano Donizetti: L'elisir D'amore

Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro de Bellas Artes, Jose Arean, conductor
Premiere Opera DVD 5060

Of today's opera stars, tenor Rolando Villazón may be the "hottest" (if readers will allow that Entertainment Tonight term). He has gone from being an Operalia winner a few years back to assuming leading roles in the major houses of Europe and the U.S. His second major label recital disc has just been released to even higher praise than his first received, which appeared on many "best of the year lists" for 2004. Wherever he appears, major profiles and interviews appear in the local papers. He's so hot he may be contributing to global warming.

As of early 2005, however, fans of opera on DVD have nothing from the major outlets that allows them to view the Villazón phenomenon as well as hear it. Ah, but Premiere Opera comes to the rescue: a 2001 performance, apparently televised, from Mexico of Donizetti's beloved comic masterpiece L'elisir D'amore, featuring one of the very greatest tenor arias, "Una furtiva lagrima." True devotees of great contemporary singing will want this document of Villazón at the start of his career, despite the variable video quality (probably not reproduced from an original source).

The occasional darkness of the picture makes evaluating the physical production problematic. From what can be discerned, painted backdrops constitute most of the sets. Props are few. A huge metal contraption brews up Dulcamara's potion, and a long table appears for the festival scene. A painted drop descends for some scenes played at the lip of the stage while modest set changes occur behind. Costumes are vaguely Tyrolean, with Villazón's rustic wear so impeccably pressed and clean that he might well be suspected of never actually getting down to working. But he's so busy moping over Adina, the fields will just have to wait.

Although what can be seen of the sets may not impress, the singers are up front most of the time, and the picture captures them very well. And that's important with Villazón, a born stage performer whose gestures, expressions, and sheer enthusiasm draw the viewer's eyes. His Nemorino manages to be goofy enough that Adina's initial rejection doesn't turn the audience away from her, and yet endearing enough that her eventual capitulation is heartwarmingly inevitable.

Most importantly, his fresh tenor fits this role perfectly. He has no fear of the high notes, and the warm, velvety texture of his middle range never fails to please. He does a creditable job with some of the faster runs in Donizetti's bel canto writing, but the highlight is the "Una Furtiva lagrima." which the besotted Mexican audience insists be encored. Yes, painted backdrops and a bis for the big tenor aria: it's that kind of gloriously old-fashioned performance. And from 2001!

And Villazón is not the only singer of interest. In a NYCO broadcast of Boheme a few years back, Villazón's Rodolfo horsed around with the Marcello of Alfredo Daza. Daza is the Belcore here, and though his vocal instrument doesn't have the charisma of Villazón's, his is a characterful baritone, and he is nearly as good an actor. It's easy to ham up the role of the ludicrously self-loving Belcore, and Daza manages to bring comic flair to the role without becoming annoying. His curtain call in character is cherishable.

Mikhail Svetlov Krutikov's Dulcamara appears in vaguely Arabian genie costume, the exotic flavor complemented by his Russian accent. He's entertaining, as is Ana Luis Mendez in the small role of Gianetta.

Which leaves the Adina, Eugenia Garza Prieto. Some may well find her as pleasing and attractive as an Adina should be - Kathleen Battle seemed perfect for the role in a Met broadcast with Pavarotti of some years back. For this viewer, Prieto is satisfactory is the faster music, but anything slower highlights a shrill quality, especially up top. And with Villazón on stage, her basic lack of charm really hinders her attempts to bring the character to life.

Jose Arean leads the orchestra in a lively, well-detailed performance (the audio is very good). The violinists' bows, by the way, can briefly be seen tapping their music stands at the beginning of the ovation for the first of Villazón's "Furtiva" renditions.

As what may be a special bonus for some viewers, Premiere Opera has included a weird animated sequence in the intermission, apparently for the broadcast channel, in which some almost nude Aztec warriors in clay models do some military exercises. PBS might pick up some more viewers with such imaginative intermission programming.

As a final reminder, if the reader insists on a perfect picture, this DVD will not please. Once or twice the picture froze or skipped on your reviewer's DVD player. Thin blurry streaks cross the screen. Near the end, for a few seconds the warning "AUTO PICTURE" flashes across the screen. Some may also regret the lack of English subtitles (Spanish ones on the screen cannot be removed). With an opera such as Elisir, however, surely a basic familiarity with the story will suffice.

For the growing number of Villazón fans, however, this DVD may be indispensable, if for nothing more than those ten minutes when Villazón comes to the front of the stage to sing "Una furtive lagrima" twice. The place goes nuts, and the look on Villazón's face is priceless. No flaws in the video can interfere with the perfection of a great opera moment such as that.

Chris Mullins
Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy

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