The fruits of Rolando Villazón's change of record company from EMI to Deutsche Grammophon have been quick to emerge. Hot on the heels of a very good recording of La bohème, in which his Rodolfo is unquestionably the finest element, has come this excellent new album of lesser known Italian arias.
And what an album it is. Although hardly any of the repertoire on the disc is entirely new to me, it's refreshing to see a celebrity tenor such as Villazón produce an arias disc that steers clear of the war horses: there's no 'Nessun dorma' here, and I'm not sorry. That said, it would take a stretch of the imagination to see 'Quando le sere al placido' from Luisa Miller as a lesser-known aria, even if Luisa isn't the most performed of Verdi's operas. But the great thing is that, as Villazón explains in an entertaining interview in the liner booklet, the tenor has chosen arias that speak to him emotionally, rather than selecting them for their academic value, and he sings them like he means every word.
In my opinion, the finest track on the disc is Gabriele Adorno's aria from Simon Boccanegra. It probably helps that Verdi was at the height of his powers when writing the opera, but you really can't argue with the way Villazón rides the orchestra in the impassioned recitative, nor with the glorious tone he brings to the aria itself. Surely this will be a great role for him in the theatre.
The title track of the CD, 'Cielo e mar' from Ponchielli's vastly underrated La Gioconda (soon to be revived both by Opera Holland Park in the summer and the Met next year), also receives a meaningful and arresting performance from the tenor. Villazón uses the words as his guide, rather than resorting to easy histrionics or merely bathing in the beauty of his voice, and the result is a finely shaded rendition. I also admire the way he negotiates the stepwise chromatic melodic lines of 'La dolcissima effigie sorridente' from Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, and the dreaminess of approach to Faust's first-act romanza from Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito, Verdi's collaborator on Otello and Falstaff.
I was delighted by the inclusion of 'La dea di tutti i cor!' from Mercadante's fascinating Il giuramento, again performed with a generosity of tone, and Villazón's handling of the flexibility of line in the exquisitely-orchestrated 'Il conosco un giardino' from Pietri's Maristella shows his understanding of style and colour. One of the singer's own favourites is 'Ah! Se tu sei fra gli angeli' from Gomes' Fosca, and I could see why some people would admire the power he gives to the performance, but for my taste, the passion is just a little too full-on and, unusually, Villazón does not give it quite the same level of nuance. For me, too, the aria from Donizetti's Poliuto does not have quite the simplicity and ease that this more bel canto fare needs, and it's hampered by the dry voice of Gianluca Alfano as A Christian.
Yet the rest of the tracks are all of a very high standard. Il giuramento pops up again with a deeply-felt 'Fu celeste quell contento', and Maurizio's second-act aria from Adriana Lecouvreur finds Villazón at his most interpretatively imaginative. Another rarity from Ponchielli, Il figliuol prodigo (The Prodigal Son), inspires Villazón to give of his all in the sort of performance that makes one wonder whether the whole opera might be worth a s howing. A second aria from Mefistofele is another reminder of that work's many fine qualities, and the depth of feeling Villazón brings to 'Quando le sere al placido' is reminiscent of that of his mentor, Plácido Domingo. The rousing finale to Act II from Luisa Miller is a great bonus feature and Villazón sings it with abandon, accompanied by the Coro Sinfonico di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; but again, Gianluca Alfano's (albeit very brief) contribution as Walter sounds dreadfully out of place.
Nevertheless, the conducting of Daniele Callegari and the playing of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi are exemplary, and this is an imaginatively conceived and very worthwhile disc.
Cielo e mar is out on 2 June. Villazon's new recording of La boheme with Anna Netrebko is out now. Click here for our review.