Oh, Rolando Villazón: where did it all go wrong? When
he first burst onto our radar he was the great white hope for
tenors, confirmed in his extraordinary Tales of Hoffmann
for the Royal Opera in 2004. Then a series of poor choices and
mishaps led to serious vocal trouble which forced him to withdraw
from the stage for an extended period. Even his great comeback,
Covent Garden’s 2008 Don Carlos, was variable and
poorly received by the press. He then ended up doing awful shows
like Popstar to Operastar. His stage performances have
been less frequent since.
This recital may well appeal to those who have become his fans
from seeing him on the TV, but I can’t hear much in it
to appeal to those who love Verdi, or who loved Villazón
when he was at his peak, because it shows us how much his technique
The main problem with the recital is that it suffers from Villazón’s
propensity to over-act, something which can be attractive on
the stage but does not lend itself to repeated listening on
disc. The recital actually begins fairly promisingly with the
extract from Oberto, ardent tone yielding to an attractive
romanza, but even here Villazón cannot restrain
himself from the vices that mar so much of his singing nowadays.
He no longer knows the meaning of the word subtlety.
He gives it everything all of the time, so that the experience
of listening is like being caught in the glare of headlights
mercilessly bearing down on you! The scene from I Due Foscari,
for example, is that of a prisoner running a full gamut of emotions,
but Villazón gives us almost no variety so that every
passage sounds the same; namely ardent, forceful yearning, which
gets very wearing! Top notes are a particular trial. They’re
not a problem for him technically, because they lie well within
his range, but he feels the need to force them unnecessarily,
thereby drawing attention away from the music and onto himself.
The Lombardi cavatina is marred by some unnecessary and
very unmusical swooning into the microphone, and the Corsaro
extract is sung in so bombastic a style as to entirely undermine
His Duke of Mantua is unbearable because he feels the need to
inject OTT emotionalism into every phrase, entirely breaking
up the vocal line and ruining the continuity. It’s particularly
bad in Questa o quella, and it even distracts him from
accurately hitting some of the notes in La donna e mobile,
the final cadence of which all but comes off the rails entirely.
Alfredo is nearly as bad: he is so keen to act the recitative
that he loses the musical line. There are uncalled-for crescendos
in the middle of notes that are distracting and irritating.
Even I had to admit, though, that his sustained top note at
the end of the cabaletta is thrilling, and a reminder of the
voice in its heyday. The recitative in Ballo is solid,
but then unattractive swooping, and a seeming thinning of the
top register, mars the aria itself. The Don Carlo aria
is undoubtedly better, though, perhaps because it is a role
he knows well from singing it on stage. However, a couple of
times in the Ingemisco he can’t restrain himself
from approaching a fake sob, which does not sit well alongside
his contribution to Pappano’s
complete Verdi Requiem.
The sonnet from Falstaff isn’t bad, but it’s
an odd way to end the disc, merely stopping rather than going
out with a bang, something very unlike him.
Listening with headphones makes this disc even more difficult
because Villazón’s voice seems to “flicker”
between the left and right channels rather than staying focused
and central. I presume this was a reflection of his being unable
to restrain himself in the sessions and using his body to mimic
the swooning that he does with his voice. It doesn’t happen
in every track, but it’s particularly awful in the Rigoletto
numbers, and it’s another black mark.
The songs are worth discovering, however. Originally written
for piano, we get them here in the opulent and very faithful
orchestrations from Luciano Berio, and they’re very attractive
in their own ways. Each one, in fact, could serve just as well
as an operatic aria. Brindisi contains a drinking song
to rouse the masses. L’Esule could pass for an
extended scena, with more than a fleeting reference to
Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude in the string orchestration
of the introduction. In soliataria stanza goes well until
Villazón injects an unattractive beat into this voice
and we’re back into forced yearning mode.
The playing of the Turin orchestra is lovely, especially the
frequent solos, such as the cello in Oberto or the clarinet
in I Due Foscari and Don Carlo, and Noseda directs
them well. The attack of the strings in La donna e mobile
is particularly attractive, and the sparseness of orchestration
in the Fontainebleau aria sits well with the voice.
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not trying to go out
on some Villazón vendetta. He’s an artist that
I admired and who gave me some great nights in the theatre.
His is however a cautionary tale of how an artist can fall from
grace with illness or indiscipline. My primary reaction to this
set is one of disappointment that his artistry has fallen as
far as it has. It’s a particular shame when you compare
this disc to some of Villazón’s earlier recitals,
such as the collections he did with Virgin and, especially,
e Mar, his very good first recital with DG. He still
has an attractive voice, but he seems to have lost all the vocal
discipline that once enabled him to use his instrument so well.
The results are disappointing to those who knew him in that
This might appeal to some newcomers to Verdi but, beyond the
existence of the Verdi anniversary in 2013, it’s hard
to see any good reason why this recital was compiled, and it’s
even harder to see any long term future for it.