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Posts Tagged ‘Rolando Villazón’

Even compared to Mozart early works such as Mitridate and Lucio Silla, his delightful stage serenata Il Re Pastore is a rarity. There is not much of a plot to speak of (basically a couple of connected misunderstandings involving unusually good-intentioned people) and fiendishly difficult vocal parts, but the lack of appeal of a pastoral setting might ultimately be to blame for that. Director Grischa Asagaroff considered a great challenge to respect the original atmosphere and yet to bring some fresh air into it. As an inspiration, he looked up to Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s stagings of Mozart operas. As a result, the story is told without much interference from superimposed concepts other than having it set in a baroque garden stravaganza from which these characters spring into life when unobserved by visitors from our days.  The concept – particularly the closing scene – made me think of Tankred Dorst’s staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen (without the pretentiousness, of course). In terms of stage direction, the director transformed the libretto’s “awkward” naivete into almost sitcom-like physical comedy. While his primo “uomo” and his primo tenore have a natural instinct for it, the remaining members of the cast looked a bit lost on stage. If everything looks like polite entertainment, one can never blame him for doing exactly what Metastasio probably had in mind. In any case, without cute gestures and green fauns and with a little bit more imagination, the concept might have come to life.

Although William Christie says that Il Re Pastore is a hidden gem among Mozart’s early work, his conducting did not show great affection for the music. Abrasiveness seemed to be the keynote – the overture sounded rough and uncomfortable, arie di bravura received the egg-timer approach and lyrical moments sounded devoid of feeling, especially the Aminta/Elisa duet, which should be the opera’s centerpiece. The exception was – not surprisingly – a L’amerò a tad slow for my ears (I am used to Margaret Price and James Lockhart’s recording when everything sounds flowing and spontaneous). Under these circumstances, singers (with one notable exception) couldn’t help by sounding nervous and often imprecise – the orchestral sound was unpolished and rather cacophonic. Justice be made to concertmaster Ada Pesch, who played the solo part in Aminta’s famous aria expressively. In his recording with a period instrument orchestra, Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a far more persuasive advocate of the hidden gem, finding far more variety and dept in it.

Aminta is a role generally taken by lyric sopranos, who can benefit from a serviceable lower register and creamy top notes. In Neville Marriner’s recording, there is Angela Maria Blasi, whose voice was substantial enough to sing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and in Thomas Hengelbrock’s DVD, we find Anette Dasch, Bayreuth’s current Elsa in Lohengrin. Martina Jankova is the Opernhaus Zürich’s resident -ina and couldn’t help finding the tessitura uncomfortable. Although she sang stylishly and often beautifully, her usually bell-toned soprano seemed opaque in its higher reaches and sometimes sharp. Her voice is very agile, but she would sound even more convincing in Aer tranquillo if the conductor had given her a little bit more leeway. Malin Hartelius’s last Mozartian role in Zürich was Fiordiligi and the next is going to be Konstanze. Elisa’s breathtakingly high tessitura accordingly suggests a bright-toned soprano “happier” in its higher reaches: an Arleen Augér role. Hartelius’s voice sits a bit lower than this. At any rate, if she is going to sing Martern aller Arten  in the near future, I have to believe she was really not in very good voice this evening. Her high notes were recessed and often unfocused. Only solid technique saved her in her act II aria. Her coloratura was generally precise and fluent, but she too strayed from what Mozart wrote in a couple of tricky notes. In any case, both ladies were far better cast than Sandra Trattnigg, who fought pitch, fioriture and low notes as Tamiri. It could have been nerves, but I suspect this is not her repertoire.

The men proved to be  far more commendable – Benjamin Bernheim has a firm, substantial and pleasant tenor. His voice is not very flexible and sometimes his phrasing is too cupo. But he has great potential, which he has yet to fulfill. Rolando Villazón had his hard edges in a role in which everybody else is basically  all hard edges. In other words, although the approach was sometimes too broad for Mozart, I have never heard it so beautifully sung as this evening: the tone is warm, natural and dulcet, his control of divisions is impressive and he even found variety, feeling and sense of humor in the role. He could also build a very funny yet unexaggerated character – the ad libs appropriate and sometimes hilarious. I am glad he has decided to explore lighter roles, in which had proved to more than fulfill the technical and musical requirements.

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Massenet’s Werther is hardly anyone’s favorite opera. Many dismiss it with the label “tacky” – and truth is that, were it not for the fancy of some star tenors, it would not be produced at all. All that said, the whole French repertoire has been rediscovered – even in France – and Werther, thanks to the advocacy of tenors like Roberto Alagna, Ramón Vargas, Marcelo Álvarez and Jonas Kaufmann, has mushroomed in the seasons of many opera houses.

This does not mean these tenors had to start over from a forgotten tradition. On the contrary, almost every important French tenor has left a recording – and even a secondary tradition of Spanish tenors such as Kraus, Carreras and Domingo may be traced back in the discography. Although Rolando Villazón’s French is quite more realistic than many Spanish-speaking Werthers, I would have no doubt in placing him among the Spaniards, for his emotionalism and fervor. I had seen Villazón only once as Lensky in the Lindenoper in Achim Freyer’s infamous production that makes any possibility of acting impossible. This evening, I could understand the Mexican tenor’s artistry. Guided by unbridled emotional generosity, he plunged into the predicaments of the young Werther with almost ferocious intensity. What in less sincere hands could sound and look exaggerated seems vehement, intense and very moving. He drives his lightweight yet rich and dark-hued tenor dangerously hardly, but the tonal quality is dulcet, the coloring is varied, the inflections are expressively drawn and the commitment is enormous. By the end, few eyes were still dry. Indeed, Villazón is a very special singer.

His Charlotte, Sophie Koch, has an ideal voice for the role. It is vibrant, full-toned and large enough, but still light enough to suggest youth. Act III maybe took her to her limits, but her adeptly focused high notes survived the test. Although she started the evening a bit too cool for the circumstances, she increasingly gained in pathos during the evening and almost matched the tenor in intensity by act III. Audun Iversen (Albert) has a noble and large voice, a little bit wooden in the end of the range, but even that worked out well for the role. He only seemed uncomfortable on stage. On the other hand, the bell-toned Eri Nakamura wad a vivacious and sensitive Sophie. Last but not least, Alain Vernhes was a congenial Bailli.

I am hardly a specialist in Massenet’s music, but I have found Antonio Pappano’s conducting very convincing in its large, late Romantic gestures. Act III sounded almost Tristanesque in its richness of sound, flexibility of beat and forcefulness of accent.

In the days of Regietheater, Benoît Jacquot’s 2004 production might seem unimaginative in its historical propriety and unobstructive concept, but his meticulous direction of actors (as revived by Andrew Sinclair) is immensely refreshing; the level of dramatic engagement achieved here unfortunately rarely found in operatic stages. Although acts I and II could feature more interesting sets, acts III and IV found inspiration in Hammershøi and looked beautiful and expressive. I just wished each character had been allowed more than one costume during the whole opera.

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The Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s Festtage is one of the world’s most puzzling festivals in the world – basically you are offered the same operatic productions showed during the year with more or less the same casts, but with a far more expensive ticket price. One could say that this is an opportunity to see a showcase of the Lindenoper’s best productions – but that is not the case either. There is nothing special about their current Tristan und Isolde – and Achim Freyer’s Onegin is one of the most embarrassing  productions ever shown to an audience. It is ugly, pointless and confusing. The three-dimensionality of Puschkin’s characters as conveyed into music by Tschaikovsky is what makes this opera a masterpiece – and it is an offense to both writer and composer to see them reduced to semaphoric puppets. Pity – it is a beautiful opera. If someone had explained it to the director, he would probably like it.

As a compensation for the horrors shown on stage, Daniel Barenboim offered a grandiose, quasi-Wagnerian account of the score in its large orchestral sound, almost feverish intensity and flexibility of tempo. The Staatskapelle Berlin played it to the manner born – deep, rich, warm string sounds and expressive woodwind solos. The orchestra alone was a pleasure in itself. The cast here gathered had no weak link and it is doubly commendable that they could sing so expressively straight-jacked by the silliest stage direction in the galaxy.

Although Anna Samuil’s soprano tends to acidity in the most outspoken moments, she masters the art of evoking girlishness and innocent radiance elsewhere. She is particularly adept in conveying spontaneity in conversational passages in her natural middle register and avoidance of aggressive break into chest voice. She was probably the only soloist who has survived the ludicrous scenic choreographies with her expressive eyes and the concentration of her movements. She was ideally partnered by Maria Gortsevskaya’s Olga, who was able to produce warm sounds without suggesting a matron (a too usual mistake in the role). That said, Katharina Kammerloher’s mezzo still sounded too young in comparison to her daughters’ voices. Margarita Nekrasova’s spacious contralto, on the other hand, couldn’t be better suited to Filipjewna. She should be a great Erda – I hope that Barenboim remember her in his next performances of the Ring.

Artur Rucinski’s warm and dark baritone suggested a handsome and elegant Onegin. This Polish singer gave us a stylish and firm-toned performance. Some high-lying passages seemed a tiny bit tense, but he used it to good dramatic purposes. The glamourous casting of René Pape as the Prince Gremin was an extra treat to the audience in its outpouring of velvety sounds. All that said, I guess my four or five reads are probably curious about my impressions on Rolando Villazón’s Lensky. As I do not speak Russian, I cannot say how idiomatic he was. But I can certainly report on a most sensitive performance from this Mexican tenor. Although some high notes could be more strongly supported, he produced seamless legato, shaded his voice to touching effects and never sang with less than full commitment. And his tenor remains extremely pleasant, with a solid middle and low registers. His big aria was particularly heartfelt in its intimate melancholy. These purely lyric roles suit him and I hope that, after the ordeal he recently went through, he avoid heavy repertoire from now on.

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