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Rolando Villazón - Opera Recital
24 May 2006

Rolando Villazón — Opera Recital

I’ve carefully listened several times to this new solo album (his third) by Rolando Villazón and it grows on you, though there are a few weaknesses.

Rolando Villazón — Opera Recital

Rolando Villazón tenor with Theresa Blank contralto, Florian Laconi tenor, Bayerischer Rundfunkchor, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Michel Plasson (cond.)

Virgin Classics 3447012 [CD]

$15.98  Click to buy

“In music there are no nationalities. In opera, you just go out there and sing, and music becomes everyone’s home country” the tenor is supposed to have been saying while recording this album. All composers on this CD would have had a hearty laugh when hearing this modern politically correct statement, though it’s possible that some of them like Verdi, Mascagni, Tchaikovsky and Strauss would have been angry as they often stressed the importance of national schools and their performance traditions. All over the Western world, critics and audiences are dead-tired of that vague international style that is so dear to general managers and directors as they can easily replace some Chinese soprano by an Argentine lady without anyone really noticing it. After all that’s why some American singers, proficient in several languages and musically strong, are so popular even if their singing talents are somewhat meagre. And singers, most of whom have to eat and to sleep and to earn the necessary money that goes with it, comply—even on recordings.

Back in the sixties James McCracken was the first tenor to record a solo album in three languages. Enter Domingo who added a fourth language on his first RCA album and, since that time, most singers have slavishly followed the trend. So does Rolando Villazón. Now nobody hearing the tenor would for one moment believe he comes from the British Isles or is an American of Anglo-Saxon descent and no known or yet unknown German tenor will ever sing this way. Even after a few measures of this and any other of his recitals, it is clear that here is an impassioned tenor with roots in Spain or its former South-American colonies, as the burnished dark sound of the voice hints more to those parts of the world than to the clearer sky of Italy. Villazón’s great and deserved success, therefore, derives not from his international outlook but from his decisively old-fashioned style of singing that throws us back to the good old days of Lazaro, Cortis or Granda. So it is no coincidence that his German arias are the least successful and he would have been better advised to sing "M’appari instead of Ach so fromm" (like Vickers used to do on his solo album, though his German pronunciation was far better than Villazón’s). Now I won’t grumble too much as it is still a treat nowadays to hear a top tenor sing the old war horse. But he remains somewhat mealy mouthed as well in the same composer’s Stradella though he shows some fine diminuendi. Compare his version with that of Joseph Schmidt and you immediately hear the difference when the aria is sung with as good a legato by a tenor steeped in the language and the performance tradition.

Villazón is better in the French repertoire though there too there are patches like in the Kleinzack aria where he is only mouthing words without a real understanding. I know he has already sung the complete role but I fear it is not yet completely under his belt. And he can sing in French. Several times I watched his Antibes recital of two years ago (with underrecorded Albanian soprano Inva Mula), which he had carefully prepared and where the pronunciation and, therefore, the musical phrasing deriving from the feeling for the words and the situations they tell, was almost perfect. In this his Carmen aria is far better. But as a Latin tenor, he most comes into his own in the Italian repertoire. There is some small chink in the armour too. His passion is more than overwhelming in Ernesto’s serenade and his forceful top note makes the song sound more like Manrico’s call to arms behind the scenes than the lovelorn yearning of a young bourgeois.

In the verismo repertoire, Villazón is of course at his best. His delivery, the emotional quivering of the voice he often uses, reminds us of the best pre-world-war tenors like Merli or Pertile. Contrary to these gentlemen he has a good fine piano which he has lately refined very much and which he uses in some excellent phrasing all over this recital like the recitative of the Ballo aria or the Pêcheurs aria, which few tenors with such a dark voice have sung better. But old-fashioned he remains in some of his choices and don’t expect him to sing the high B of Carmen or the “Tosca, sei tu” from “Recondita armonia” in pianissimo. There the voice rings out strongly and one wonders if he doesn’t put too much pressure on the vocal cords to strive for an effect so that he is in danger of damaging the instrument. At his début in De Munt he clearly oversang so much that at the end of Bohème he lost his voice for a few moments and he was only saved by Tony Pappano who immediately slowed the orchestra down so that he could regain his breath and voice. Villazón is at his best too in the Lensky aria (though I cannot judge his Russian) where he uses the whole rich spectrum of shade and passion in his voice to draw the despair of this young man. There he is in the tradition of some very Italian or Italianate tenors who wouldn’t go near German roles but were remarkable in this opera (e.g. Tucker and Di Stefano). There is only one rarity on this recital: the alternative aria for Ernani, recorded 26 years ago by Pavarotti but given here in its entirety with chorus and cabaletta.

This is one of the fine qualities of this record. All choruses or small comprimario bits are nicely filled in and Michel Plasson, a good and even underrated conductor, gives his tenor all necessary leeway where he wants it but never lets Villazón slacken the tempi to make an effect. I know some of this review sounds a little like carping but the length and detail only prove that I care very much for a tenor who after so many years of waiting is at least once again a reminder of the new golden age of singing we knew between 1945 and 1975. for the moment though 3 operatic recitals in a few years time will do and I hope he can convince his recording company to do a zarzuela recital. He has already sung a few items in concert and he is simply fabulous in it, combining Domingo’s rich middle voice with young Alfredo Kraus’ elegance.

Jan Neckers

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