A c aclel sasr ias

Af­ter a much needed five- month break, tenor Rolando Vil­la­zon is ready for new chal­lenges, writes Hugh Can­ning

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

THE cover of Rolando Vil­la­zon’s first solo album for Deutsche Gram­mophon shows the Mex­i­can tenor against a back­drop of sea and sky, his arms out­stretched, his ex­pres­sion ec­static. It’s called Cielo e Mar ( Sky and Sea), af­ter the hero’s fa­mous aria in Amil­care Ponchielli’s once pop­u­lar — now ne­glected — opera La Gio­conda : the best- known num­bers are the so­prano’s Sui­cidio! and the Dance of the Hours , un­for­get­tably chore­ographed by Walt Dis­ney in Fan­ta­sia for bal­le­rina os­triches and hip­pos, and al­li­ga­tor vil­lains.

For Vil­la­zon, this is a come­back album be­cause from July 2007 un­til Jan­uary this year he can­celled all his en­gage­ments for a five­month break.

As no of­fi­cial rea­son was given for this im­promptu sab­bat­i­cal, the op­er­atic ru­mour mill sug­gested he was ei­ther de­pressed or re­cov­er­ing from an op­er­a­tion on his vo­cal cords. In July he had ap­peared at the Liceu in Barcelona, singing the Che­va­lier des Grieux to the Manon Lescaut of French star Natalie Des­say in Massenet’s opera. At some per­for­mances, the worst night­mare of any tenor oc­curred: he cracked on some of his high notes.

When we met in Lon­don just be­fore Christ­mas last year, as Vil­la­zon was poised to re­turn to the stage in Vi­enna with three per­for­mances in Manon and three in Massenet’s other great tenor opera, Werther , I asked him what had gone wrong.

Af­ter a long pause he an­swered with dis­arm­ing frank­ness: ‘‘ I was ex­hausted. I couldn’t sing the way I wanted to sing, I couldn’t per­form the way I wanted to per­form. And I couldn’t go on liv­ing the way I was. Vo­cally, I was tired. It was phys­i­cally hard to reach notes, to sing pi­ano ( softly).

‘‘ You know, it started to be­come a job, not a plea­sure, to sing. I went for a check- up and the doc­tor said I needed to take five weeks off. So I called my agent and said, The doc­tor says I need to take off five months.’ A pause was needed, ab­so­lutely needed.’’

Vil­la­zon’s rise to in­ter­na­tional star­dom has been me­te­oric since his sen­sa­tional de­but, only five years into his Euro­pean ca­reer, as the doomed ro­man­tic hero of Of­fen­bach’s The Tales of Hoff­mann at the Royal Opera House, Covent Gar­den, in 2004.

I re­mem­ber the first night as vividly as any since the opera house re­opened in 1999. Vil­la­zon had sung a well- re­ceived but un­spec­tac­u­lar Rodolfo in Puc­cini’s La Bo­heme at Glyn­de­bourne the pre­vi­ous sum­mer, but noth­ing had pre­pared the pub­lic ( or crit­ics) for the im­pact of his Hoff­mann, ar­guably the finest in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the role — bril­liantly acted as well as sung — since Placido Domingo in­au­gu­rated the John Schlesinger pro­duc­tion al­most a quar­ter of a cen­tury ear­lier.

At his cur­tain call the au­di­ence re­sponse was rap­tur­ous and an ev­i­dently sur­prised and moved Vil­la­zon jumped up and down with de­light like a child on the loose with a credit card in a toy store. That night he won all hearts in the opera house. Af­ter rave re­views, Vil­la­zon was on the map. Of­fers came flood­ing in from across the world. Soon the record com­pa­nies be­gan to bid for this at­trac­tive young tenor, with his Latin looks ( al­though, with his curly mop and bushy eye­brows, he is some­times un­kindly com­pared with Rowan Atkin­son’s Mr Bean) and a dark­toned, though lyri­cal, tenor to match.

In the year of his Covent Gar­den de­but, his first solo album of Ital­ian arias ap­peared on Vir­gin Clas­sics, but he soon de­fected to the Uni­ver­sal stable’s most glam­orous la­bel, DG, singing along­side Anna Ne­tre­bko in a live record­ing from the 2005 Salzburg fes­ti­val and re­leas­ing an album of op­er­atic duets with the same so­prano last year.

They were opera’s new dream cou­ple. But by the mid­dle of last year, the dream looked to be in tat­ters. Vil­la­zon dropped out of the op­er­atic loop and Ne­tre­bko con­fessed, in an in­ter­view in th­ese pages, that she hadn’t heard from him. He has can­celled sev­eral projects orig­i­nally planned with her, but there is no per­sonal ran­cour. Last month they were re­united on the set of a film of La Bo­heme in Vi­enna, lip- sync­ing to the sound­track that they recorded live in con­cert last year, which DG will re­lease on CD in May.

It be­comes clear, talk­ing to Vil­la­zon, that some­thing had to go or he would have been in dan­ger of early burnout. ‘‘ What hap­pened to me is noth­ing se­ri­ous when you con­sider what is go­ing on in the world to­day,’’ he says. ‘‘ I went back and sang again and life con­tin­ues. Why should I talk about it pub­licly? Well, be­cause it’s an ex­am­ple of what ev­ery­body can ex­pe­ri­ence in our mod­ern times. It wasn’t easy for me. Singing wasn’t re­ally fun any more, and I wanted it to be fun again, so I had to step back.’’

When Vil­la­zon first emerged, he was lazily, undis­crim­i­nat­ingly dubbed the new Domingo. This has been as much a curse as a com­pli­ment, for it has led to ex­pec­ta­tions of the young Mex­i­can fill­ing the great Spa­niard’s shoes as Domingo aban­dons hefty dra­matic parts. Vil­la­zon is a slighter man than Domingo and doesn’t

have what the ad­mir­ing younger singer calls his ‘‘ iron tech­nique’’, nor, I would add, his stamina, worka­holism or ro­bust physique.

Even be­fore the cri­sis last July, Vil­la­zon had dropped the de­mand­ing role of Ric­cardo in Verdi’s A Masked Ball at the Nether­lands Opera. ‘‘ And now Tosca in Ber­lin,’’ he adds. ‘‘ I’m do­ing a new pro­duc­tion of Tchaikovsky’s Eu­gene One­gin with ( Daniel) Baren­boim.’’ Be­fore he sang the role of the tragic poet Len­sky for the first time in 2006, Vil­la­zon told me he doubted if he would sing it again. He wasn’t sure the Rus­sian id­iom suited him, and he felt there were na­tive singers who were bet­ter able to do it jus­tice. ‘‘ No! Now I love it,’’ he says. ‘‘ I want to sing it ev­ery­where.’’

Hoff­mann, Des Grieux, Werther and Len­sky are all doomed young men, un­lucky in love, to whom Vil­la­zon’s spe­cial qual­i­ties — his emo­tional in­volve­ment, his dra­matic com­mit­ment and his im­pas­sioned singing — would seem ideally suited. Per­haps it is be­cause he has re­fused to stint him­self in per­for­mance that he has run into prob­lems.

Some­one said to me, You know, you give too much on the stage’,’’ he says.

‘‘ But that’s me, and I will have to make sure I don’t give too much when I am tired or sick. I al­ways say that my voice is a horse, and I got to a point where my horse was kick­ing me and say­ing, ‘ Not any more.’ Slowly things came back, and I cried when I re­alised my voice was let­ting me ride it again.’’

Even off stage, Vil­la­zon is one of the most an­i­mated singers I have met, and it’s his ner­vous en­ergy that makes him such a joy to watch and lis­ten to. He is clearly thrilled to be re­turn­ing to Covent Gar­den for Don Carlo in June, and the news that it is the first of many re­turns will thrill his fans. I am com­ing back for Hoff­mann in Novem­ber and for many other things there. I adore this theatre. My de­but there was such a spe­cial mo­ment in my ca­reer.’’

De­spite his hy­per­ac­tiv­ity, he seems more re­laxed and cen­tred, pleased that he has learned he has noth­ing to lose by say­ing no, and de­lighted to be spend­ing more time with his young fam­ily — he and his wife have two sons aged four and five — in Paris.

He looks at his ca­reer break pos­i­tively: If any­thing, I sing with more en­ergy now. If you take risks, you even­tu­ally fall and eat some dust. Ei­ther you go back and con­tinue as be­fore, or you start again with a new per­spec­tive and you have some­thing much more in­ter­est­ing to give. As dif­fi­cult as it has been, it tasted good, the dust.’’

On a high note once more: Rolando Vil­la­zon with Anna Ne­tre­bko in La Bo­heme; and in 2006, right

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