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