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¡México!  - A celebration of Mexican composers and their music: Rolando Villazón (tenor), Bolívar Soloists and guests, Royal Festival Hall, London 6.12.2010 (JPr)

Earlier this year Rolando Villazón celebrated the release of his Handel arias CD with a short European tour. At the time of the London concert in May his profile was very high in the UK thanks to his participation as judge and mentor in the quickly forgotten
Popstar to Operastar celebrity contest on ITV. The Royal Festival Hall concert garnered very poor reviews and was notable (if that is the right word) for demonstrating that his voice that was quite unsuited for Handel and for a significant lapse of memory at one point. Sky-high ticket prices meant that the hall was barely two-thirds full. Undaunted Deutsche Grammophon have sent Villazón out on a series of concert dates in Mexico and Europe, culminating again at the Royal Festival Hall, to celebrate his latest CD ¡México!. Ticket prices were high again and regardless of this - or the negative press from May – a much larger crowd came out for this concert, with many compatriots of Villazón in attendance. Much fun was had by all, including me, and I will state now that this evening goes straight to the top of my list of musical highlights for 2010.

As the tenor continues his recovery from well-publicised illness and a more recent operation on his vocal cords, what future he has in opera is unclear at present. He does have major engagements as Werther and Don Ottavio later this season and only time will tell if these are fulfilled. His bushy-browed, wide-eyed, curly- haired appearance remains quixotic and as a recitalist he has a very engaging personality and a great ability to communicate the meaning of a song. Even if he does seem a little ‘manic’ at times you cannot help but warm to him.

The background to the CD - and the music Villazón and the gifted Bolívar Soloists performed - was explained by Villazón’s words in the colourful programme book: ‘When Mexicans are happy, they sing their joy, when they suffer, their tears stream more freely with music, and when a Mexican falls in love, he often takes a mariachi band to the house of his beloved and declares his love with a serenade.’ It was presented as a ‘homage to Mexico – a testimony to the richness of its tradition and to the talent of its composers’ that was taking place ‘in the year of the bicentennial of Mexican independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution.’ The songs Villazón sang were either with the spirited accompaniment of Rhodri Clarke at the piano or in new arrangements for chamber ensemble by Efrain Oscher (flautist and leader of the Bolívar Soloists), Gonzalo Grau and composer Daniel Catán. The 12 talented Bolívar Soloists seemed a veritable United Nations of musicians and Villazón was keen to announce that the pianist was from Wales and the musician in control of the maracas was from Germany.

Villazón stressed that what we read of his homeland in the press is only a ‘little sad part of Mexico’ and that if we went there we would be greeted by his people with ‘a smile, a glass of Tequila and music in their hearts’. Featuring strongly in programme of atmospheric songs, full of authentic Mexican melodies and rhythms, were compositions by Maria Grever (
Despedida), Agustin Lara (notably Noche de ronda and Vera Cruz) and Consuelo Velázquez (Bésame mucho). In one of several entertaining comments about what he was singing Villazón told his audience that Bésame Mucho is probably Mexico’s most famous song and although the title was ‘Kiss Me Again and Again’ when Velazquez wrote it she was 17 and ‘had never kissed a man … or a woman’ and that ‘the first erotic kiss of Consuelo Velázquez was with music’. Lara, we were told, played the piano from a young age in a brothel; Villazón assured us that ‘not every Mexican musician begins his career that way’! As the evening went on Villazón proved a natural comedian and had the audience ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ with the community sing-song of ‘Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no flores’ during the ‘mash-up’ of Cielito Lindo and México lindo y querido. By the time we were all clapping along during an encore of the very familiar La Cucaracha with Villazón now in a sombrero, his victory was complete.

And finally how did he sing? Well for me his voice was in excellent shape once it warmed up for what was a very demanding programme of emotional songs. The top of his voice seemed in good shape and he only cracked once in my opinion. With the very demanding – almost Neapolitan sounding –
Besos robados (Stolen kisses), a little known song by Jorge del Moral for piano and a haunting trumpet solo, Villazón seemed to suggest he is close to his best again. A truly memorable evening.

Jim Pritchard


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