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Rolando Villazon - Cielo e mar
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886)
La Gioconda: Cielo e mar [5:15]
Francesco CILEA (1866 – 1950)
Adriana Lecouvreur: La dolcissima effigie [2:09] L’anima ho stanca [1:48]
Saverio MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870)
Il giuramento: La dea di tutti i cor! [4:12] Compita è omai – Fu celeste quel contento [3:41]
Arrigo BOITO (1842 – 1918)
Mefistofele: Dai campi, dai prati [2:33] Giunto sul passo estremo [2:38]
Giuseppe PIETRI (1886 – 1946)
Maristella: Io conosco un giardino [2:01]
Antônio Carlos GOMES (1836 – 1896)
Fosca: Intenditi con Dio! – Ah! Se tu sei fra gli angeli [5:01]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
Simon Boccanegra: O inferno! Amelia qui! – Sento avvampar nell’anima [5:23]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848)
Poliuto: Veleno è l’aura ch’io respire! – Sfolgorò divino raggio [8:24]*
Il figliuol prodigo: Il padre! … Il padre mio! – Tenda natal [4:41]
Giuseppe VERDI
Luisa Miller: Oh! Fede negar potessi – Quando le sere al placido [5:36] L’ara o l’avello apprestami [3:18]*
Rolando Villazon (tenor)
Gianluca Alfano (bass)*
Coro Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Daniele Callegari
rec. Auditorium, Milan, March 2007
Texts and French, German and English translations enclosed
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 7224 [56:41]
Experience Classicsonline

For his eagerly awaited first solo recital for DG – there has been a duet disc with Anna Netrebko – Villazon roams fairly untrodden paths in the deep forests of Italian 19th century opera. That there are riches to be uncovered we knew and little is true virgin soil since some of his colleagues and predecessors have already walked there. Still it is to be applauded that he is brave enough to thrust his way through the thickets and come out with vigorous and shapely plants, worthy to blossom in our public gardens. At first it seems that he beds them out in haphazard order without any regard to their reciprocal kinship, but in his own words ‘the recital begins with an ideal world of love; then we see how this love may transform into anger and revenge. Each aria has a soul crying out with its emotion: passion, despair, joy, pain.’ With this manifesto in mind we can regard his garden either as a unity or dwell on the individual beauty of each flower.
Cielo e mar from La Gioconda is in every lirico spinto tenor’s repertoire but when did we last hear something from Ponchielli’s other operas? He wrote another nine. Il figliuol prodigo, written four years after La Gioconda and his penultimate work, premiered on 26 December 1880, may not have been a success but Azaele’s recitative and romance from the last act is certainly worth rescuing. The recitative is charged with intensity and the romance is truly beautiful. José Carreras recorded it in 1976 and on the same occasion set down the two arias from Mercadante’s Il giuramento, composed in 1837 and regarded as his reform opera where he tried to free himself from the conventions of Italian opera of the time. Franz Liszt admired Mercadante’s operas and regarded them as the best orchestrated in the Italian genre. It is easy to agree when one hears the beautiful interlude for cellos in the first of these two arias. But the vocal line is also expressive in his arias and far superior to many a Donizetti aria.
Brazilian Antonio Carlos Gomes was the first Latin-American composer whose works were performed in Europe. The best known is no doubt Il guarany, premiered in Milan in 1870. Sony recorded the opera complete in the mid-1990s with Placido Domingo in the tenor lead. Three years after Il guarany Fosca was first performed, also in Milan, and in a revised version five years later with Francesco Tamagno, who a decade later was the first Otello. The libretto for Fosca was by Antonio Ghislanzoni, no less, best known for his co-operation with Verdi in Aïda. The adventurous Carreras has recorded also this Fosca aria in a later recital from 1980.
The odd one out of these composers is Giuseppe Pietri, who wasn’t even born when the rest of the works on this disc were written. His main field was operetta - he wrote eighteen - but he also wrote five operas. Of these Maristella, first performed in Naples in 1934, has survived through the little romanza heard here, with a beautiful text, in Kenneth Chalmers’s English translation:

I know a garden
unknown to anyone else,
a haven of velvet
under a deep blue sky.
In summer, in winter
there’s the scent of irises in bloom,
nightingales sing there
at night, in love.
Come, come here to my heart,
I’ll take you to that haven,
and offer you a lovely cushion
of tiny golden feathers,
and I’ll adorn your lips with kisses,
and offer you a great casket
of shimmering dreams,
of falling stars
from the highest heavens.
My sweet love, come,
ah! come with me!

These glowing words inspired Pietri to the glowing aria. Beniamino Gigli sang in the first La Scala performances of Maristella in April 1940 and he wrote in his memoirs: ‘I found the tenor role extremely congenial to my voice, full of beautiful melodic phrases and with one lovely aria … that I promptly added to my concert repertory.’ He recorded it in January of that year and it is a truly lovely reading. On the cover to volume 10 of the Naxos ‘Gigli Edition’ there is a photo of him in the role. Another tenor of fame who also took this song to his heart was Luciano Pavarotti who recorded it around 1970.
None of the remaining arias on the disc are rarities but neither do they belong to the top 20 list of favourite tenor arias – apart from Cielo e mar.
Knowing all the arias from before and being a great admirer of Rolando Villazon I put the disc in my CD-player with anticipation as well as certain apprehension. Reports of Villazon taking time out to recover from stress this winter seemed a bad omen and, to be sure, this recital was recorded well before his withdrawal – in March 2007 – but I still listened with a certain measure of hindsight. Cielo e mar begins softly and, seemingly, slower than ever but with his phenomenal breath control he has no problems to keep a steady line and his phrasing is as musical and nuanced as before – but don’t I detect a few signs of wear on some upper notes? It shouldn’t be much to worry about but with hindsight … Isn’t there also a minimal but yet widening of vibrato at forte? Nothing to worry about but with hindsight … The tone is however as velvety as before from mezzo-forte and below and it is as gloriously ringing from mezzo-forte and upwards, but again: isn’t he pressing too hard, isn’t there a metallic upper layer that wasn’t there before and isn’t he more prone to sacrifice some nuances for sheer brilliance? At this stage of my listening I felt it deeply unfair even to think so but as I went on listening the feeling became stronger. The only criticism I have ever had against his mentor and model Placido Domingo is that he too seldom scaled down, that mezzo-forte tended to be his softest nuance. With Villazon I have felt that his way of moulding phrases had priority over the aural equivalent of tensing the muscles. This time there is more macho about him, while his softer nuances are still there. After a number of arias his golden tone became a bit tiring. Maybe it’s the fault of the recital format: fourteen tenor arias in a row at one sitting; maybe it’s the recording: is it over-bright? The orchestra isn’t, but the voice.
Dear reader! At this stage of the review, don’t let this put you off! Rolando Villazon on this hearing has still one of the most glorious voices ever recorded and, what is more, is one of the most intelligent and musical and sensitive of interpreters. Looking through my notes I see them littered with exclamation marks and words like ‘superb’, ‘glorious’, ‘expressive’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘elegant’. About La dolcissima effigie I read: ‘opens pianissimo!!’, ‘superb legato’, ‘”Bella tu sei” beautifully vocalized.’ About La dea di tutti I cor!: ‘lovingly sung’.
Mefistofele: Dai campi: ‘Faust in this opera was one of Gigli’s favourite roles – and one of his first. He made his debut in that role in Palermo, Naples, Rome, at La Scala and the Metropolitan. Villazon sings it as beautifully and with none of the blemishes of Gigli: over-sentimental, sobs and gulps, intrusive Hs.’
Maristella: Io conosco un giardino: ‘Riches a-plenty!!!’
Fosca: Intenditi con Dio: ‘Challenges Domingo’s intensity’.
Poliuto: One of the most dramatic tenor roles in all Donizetti. Carreras recorded the opera complete in the mid-1980s but then he was already past his best and sorely strained. Villazon has freshness of tone and in the aria proper he sings with such beauty and such Donizettian elegance that any criticism expressed elsewhere seems totally unimportant.
Adriana Lecouvreur: L’anima ho stanca: ‘Intensity almost to the breaking-point’.
Il figliuol prodigo: ‘Involvement and intensity in the recitative, the aria beautiful and sung sensitively and with expert legato’.
Mefistolele: Giunto sul passo: ‘The romance from the Epilogue has rarely been sung more exquisitely’.
Luisa Miller: The recitative Oh! Fede negar potessi is concentrated and intense (‘intense’ is a buzz-word for Villazon’s readings) and Quando le sere, opening softly and then growing in intensity but with the tone under perfect control and the long unbroken Verdian phrases challenging even Carlo Bergonzi. The final track L’ara o l’avello apprestami is the cabaletta and separated from the aria by some short dialogue not recorded here. It is light and elegant – in the Bergonzi manner – and with a properly crescendo and a glowing final note.
It should be added that the chorus and orchestra are first-class, that the bass, appearing in two numbers, is shaky but hardly ruins the performances and that the photographs of Villazon are more ‘mar’ than ‘cielo’. I must admit that the maritime surroundings are better suited to the present trend of artists being portrayed barefooted than most – even string quartets in tailcoats are photographed without shoes.
Having finished the review and returned to some of the tracks for a double-check I am still to some degree in two minds: While I admire Rolando Villazon enormously for his ever sensitive and nuanced readings I am at least marginally worried about his over-zealous brilliance. Impressive it is, glorious the tone is but is it too much? And what does the future hold in store? I will be very interested to hear him after his time-out.
For some rare repertoire and for superb musicality the disc however requires to be heard by all lovers of great singing.
Göran Forsling


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