Italian Opera Arias
Rolando Villazon (tenor)
Bavaria Radio Orchestra, Marcello Viotti (conductor)
VC 5 45626 2
When writing about classical music one always gets sent CDs of promising new tenors and each time someone claims: you have to hear this one, he’s the new Pavarotti. Usually, these new tenors are people with either good voices or good looks or a combination of both, who may be here to stay one day, perhaps even two. Then the hype dies down, sometimes they lose their high Cs, and before too long the “hot new tenor” has ruined his voice and we hear nothing more of them. Pablo Macias, the Chilean-Spanish Tenor, was one of these new Pavarottis who has now disappeared from the scene, and there are countless others.
But here is one young man who will not disappear. While he may not be the next Pavarotti there is a hell of a good chance that he could be the next Domingo. They are of the same nationality and his vocal timbre is identical. If any of the young tenors is certain to go the distance then it is this young Mexican, Rolando Villazon.
“This one you must hear,” someone told me recently and from the first note that came out of this young man’s mouth, I was hooked. Now, that is a voice! His phenomenal debut CD, Italian Opera Arias, keeps selling like hotcakes and until the year 2008, this young man is now completely booked out.
His recent Covent Garden debut in Les Contes d’Hoffmann caused the Daily Telegraph to write: “History may well end up ranking him as one of the great 21st Century opera singers.” And the London Times wrote: “Villazon is the real thing, a tenor with star potential and striking individuality.”
“I wanted him for the Fenice in Venice,” says conductor Marcello Viotti, “but there was no chance.” Viotti is only one of many people to recognize the truly phenomenal talent of the young Mexican whose voice is so close to the young Domingo that one hardly hears the difference between them.
Rolando Villazon was born in Mexico City in 1972. He initially attended a German school and at the age of 11 entered the Mexican Academy of Performing Arts to study acting, music, modern dance and ballet. His main interest was romantic pop songs and soccer. The only other thing he liked was appearing in plays and so he wanted to become an actor initially. Luckily, Villazon’s father happened to work at Columbia Records (now Sony) and he often brought LPs home for his family to listen to. One of these was Domingo’s album, “Perhaps Love”, of folk song duets with John Denver. Rolando was hooked, listened to the album over and over, and started singing the songs. He then bought every Domingo record he could get his little hands on, excluding the operatic ones because he still had little use for opera.
One turning point came in 1990 when, at the age of 18, Villazon sang in a school play and the baritone Arturo Nieto happened to be in the audience. Nieto came backstage afterwards, told Villazon that he had a “really big” voice, and asked if he wanted instruction. When Villazon visited Nieto’s studio the following day, he saw a framed photograph of Nieto and Domingo on the wall. Domingo was Villazon’s hero. He was impressed that Nieto knew him personally and decided to take instruction from the baritone. Suddenly, he found out that singing opera was a lot more fun than singing pop.
It was a great break for Villazon who did not appear to be set out for a career in opera. Things happened on his way there, lots of things that made an opera career very unlikely. First, he fell in love, with his now-wife Lucia who happened to be a fellow student at the Academy of Dramatic Arts. To woo her, Villazon recited a Shakespearean sonnet and an excerpt from Fromme’s “The Art of Loving.” Lucia was 15, Villazon one year older, when they first started dating.
Then he suddenly felt a call for priesthood and wanted to become the next St Francis of Assisi. Lucia told him to pack his bags and so some years of intense soul searching ensued during which Villazon had a great battle with Catholicism, read James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, became impressed with Stephen Dedalus’s rejection of the Catholic Church, and eventually grew disillusioned with priests who openly drove about in big cars.
Meeting Nieto was a start but the decisive moment, turning him from the path of priesthood to the path of opera, came in 1992. At an end of term concert, he sang “Una Furtiva Lagrima” before an audience of 1500. His mentor, a Catholic priest, came up to Villazon afterwards and told him that his destiny was to be an opera singer, not a priest, and that he must go audition for the conservatory at once.
Villazon went there the next day and auditioned, singing an aria from La Boheme while clutching a pillow as his imaginary Mimi. He was accepted but again his path became somewhat less than straight almost at once. To finance his studies, Villazon taught history part-time. No sooner had he started than he considered abandoning singing to become a full-time teacher. But behind every great man usually stands a great woman and Lucia, now a psychologist, would hear nothing of it. She threatened not to marry Rolando if he refused to follow his dream of becoming an opera singer. Villazon decided to continue his studies, under Enrique Jaso. He started performing some smaller Rossini and Mozart parts. After he had easily won two national opera competitions in Mexico, the famous baritone Gabriel Mijares became his mentor, smoothing the path of his young charge for an international career.
Things happened from there and in 1998, Villazon came to the San Franciso Opera to join the Merola Opera Program there and also to sing his first Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. He then went on to the young artists’ program of the Pittsburgh Opera, where his performances included Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. In 1999 he won a prize in the Placido Domingo Operalia singing competition and immediately received an offer from Covent Garden in London to sing the Rosenkavalier there. Wisely, he declined, feeling that it would be more advisable to nurture his talent slowly. Covent Garden was very understanding of the young man who did not feel ready yet for London. One day he was ready and for the past years he has sung at some of the best opera houses, performing with the world’s best singers. In 2001, Villazon caused a sensation when singing Rudolfo in La Boheme at the Bregenz Opera Festival. In October 2003 he made his New York Met Debut in La Traviata with Renee Fleming. On that occasion, Classics Today wrote: “The most promising tenor debut since Juan Diego Florez.”
Villazon has also sung with Anna Netrobko: La Traviata, and in Los Angeles Romeo et Juliette. The audience reaction to on-stage Villazon was always the same, wherever he appeared: here is someone who cannot, and must not, be ignored. When Daniel Barenboim met Villazon in Berlin for the first time, his greeting words to the young tenor were: “They tell me you are wonderful.”
Following his many celebrated performances on the world’s opera stages, time seemed ripe for his first solo CD and Villazon has now signed an exclusive contract with Virgin Classics.
Of his debut CD, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “This is powerful, ravishing stuff” and Opera News made it an Editor’s Choice CD. Villazon has attended master classes with Joan Sutherland and that he learned how to sing is very evident. Impeccable technique can be taught, and he has that, but he also has something else that you cannot learn but need to be born with: a warm dark timbre, almost baritonal, and an innate feeling for the styles and moods of the pieces that he sings. The debut CD sold out within two hours in Vienna, where people were completely taken aback by such enormous talent: Villazon sings Cilea, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni but he does not only sing the pieces, he feels them. Villazon’s dark timbre courts the arias, full of dramatic urgency, and although his voice is anything but light he manages even the high tones seemingly without effort, displaying a rich range of colors and a perfect dramatic touch.
Villazon knows what he’s got and he is not shy about displaying his very obvious talent. His debut CD contains the arias of the great tenors. That invites a comparison and it is not a bad one. There are no mistakes, anywhere, no stifled tones, no sloppy phrasing. This is a great tenor voice, a truly exceptional voice that much exceeds the low standards that our modern time, unfortunately, has become used to. It is a voice of rare beauty, with a tender romantic touch but capable of displaying fiery youth. Even the top tenors sometimes cannot avoid that their effort can be heard in the high notes but Villazon sings with such seeming ease that it is almost scary. Certainly, one can live without the CDs of most other young tenors these days, but living without Villazon’s means missing out big time. Rolando Villazon is not your average young tenor and one cannot help but agree with BBC Music: “He is an exceptional talent.”
Two other CDs are already in planning: one with conductor Emmanuelle Haim who is a specialist for early music: Monteverdi’s Combattimento de Trancedi and a second solo CD, of French Arias. In his spare time, Villazon likes reading good literature, Mann, Dostoievsky and Marquez, and drawing caricatures. During opera rehearsals, when there is a lot of spare time for the performers, he keeps a caricature diary. On the opening night he gives a copy to everyone in the cast. He is still married to Lucia and they have two children.