The star of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón rose like a rocket in recent years, helped especially by his frequent pairing with Anna Netrebko, in the 2003 Salzburg La Traviata among other operas. Then, last year, there was a major wrinkle in that meteoric ascent: it first came to my ears when he sounded awful at the Met Gala last April. That preceded a spate of cancellations in the summer and fall due to unspecified health problems. Villazón has been on his way back, however, at least well enough to shoot the filmed La Bohème with Netrebko this winter, for example. His official schedule has some concerts and a few opera appearances, but no heavy engagements before late September. We certainly wish him a full recovery.
Cielo e mar (Italian opera arias), R. Villazón, OS di Milano G. Verdi, D. Callegari
(released April 22, 2008)
Deutsche Grammophon B0010871-02
This latest solo disc, his debut for Deutsche Grammophon, was actually in the can just a month before that Met Gala. It is a collection of lesser-known arias from the 19th-century Italian opera repertoire, taking its title from Enzo's not really unknown aria from Ponchielli's La Gioconda, which is the first track. Villazón and researchers at DG put the program together, sifting through operas and selecting what inspired him. As he put it to one interviewer, "If my heart beat faster and my skin prickled, then I chose it." It started with one of the eight operas, Fosca, by Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896), and continued with arias by Cilea, Mercadante, Boito, Pietra, and lesser-known operas by Verdi and Donizetti.
It is a worthy disc for opera lovers, both those who love Villazón's voice and those interested in obscurities. In this craze for unearthing the past, he is in good company, following similar efforts by Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez. Sadly, there are sounds of strain, an edgy grain in the voice on many tracks (track 12, e.g.), a raggedness (track 9), all of which indicate the troubles to come, but not enough to diminish the pleasure of listening too much. At a total timing of only 56:41 and an appropriately reduced price, it is a refreshment easily quaffed.
Rolando Villazón, Cielo e mar (publicity video)