Rolando Villazón is in fine voice as he celebrates his 50th with friends at Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart

AustriaAustria ¡Cincuentañero! Rolando Villazón turns 50: Rolando Villazón, Charles Castronovo (tenors), Plácido Domingo (tenor/baritone), Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Regula Mühlemann, Fatma Said (sopranos) and Michael Volle (baritone), Barbara Rett (host), Camarata Salzburg / Giedrė Šlekytė (conductor). Recorded live (directed by Beatrix Conrad) in the Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 21.2.2022. (JPr)

Giedrė Šlekytė conducts Camarata Salzburg, Rolando Villazón and Magdalena Kožená

Programme included excerpts from:
Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro, La clemenza di Tito, Così fan tutte
Rossini – Il barbiere di Siviglia
Verdi – Il corsaro, Don Carlo
Geronimo Giménez – La boda de Luis Alonso
Federico Moreno Torroba – Maraville, Luisa Fernanda
Pablo Sorozábal – La tabernera del puerto
Ruperto Chapí – Las hijas del Zebedeo
Emilio Arrieta – Marina
Jerry Bock – Fiddler on the Roof
Lehár – The Merry Widow
And songs by Ernesto De Curtis, Agustín Lara and Luigi Denza

¡Cincuentañero! (Fifty years old!) proved a wonderful discovery and will lift the spirits in these increasingly worrying times and you should still be able to see it on at least a couple of ARTE Concert channels until 23.5.2022. Two voices we thought had been silenced in different ways were present: one possesses perhaps the most famous eyebrows in opera – which sometimes have seemed to have a life of their own – Rolando Villazón, and the other might raise eyebrows in another way with his involvement, Plácido Domingo. On the eve of Villazón’s 50th birthday this gala concert not only celebrated that milestone but would benefit the International Mozarteum Foundation, whose finances had been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since 2017 Villazón has been artistic director of the Mozarteum Foundation’s Mozart Week which – possibly prematurely – was cancelled for 2022 earlier this year. With the audience – albeit masked – filling Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart to capacity it is clear that Austria is gradually emerging from its strict Covid-19 restrictions.

By necessity Mexican-born Villazón has evolved into something of a Renaissance Man during his career and not only is he an artistic director, but he is also an opera director, presenter and published author. He came to prominence in 1999 when he won second prize, the Zarzuela Prize and the Audience Prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia which explained the veteran singer’s presence. Villazón blazed brightly for several years, and I particularly remember a searing Hoffmann in the Offenbach opera at Covent Garden in 2004 and a 2008 film version of La bohème with Anna Netrebko as Mimì. Then in 2007 some vocal issues came to the fore and this included a cyst on his vocal cords that required surgery. He recovered from this and then there were further setbacks which suggested the once glorious tenor voice might have been silenced for ever. However, he has carefully managed his return to singing and this climaxed recently when he sang Papageno with some success at the Met where he had returned after an eight-year absence. This suggests that – much earlier than his mentor Domingo – he might be looking towards baritone roles. Nevertheless, while he never risked any high Cs Villazón’s tenor voice sounded for the most part free and easy, secure, robust and lyrical and rarely could you divert your gaze from his amazingly expressive face.

All the singing was accompanied by the consummate Camarata Salzburg who were conducted by the young – and clearly gifted – Lithuanian Giedrė Šlekytė. Throughout the gala there were many virtuosic and colourful solos, especially from concertmaster Giovanni Guzzo’s violin, as well as from clarinet, flute, and castanets! The orchestra had their moment in the spotlight with a suitably scurrying and effervescent rendition of the overture from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. And as zarzuela and songs took over the second half, they were shown swaying along to the rampant Intermezzo from Geronimo Giménez’s La boda de Luis Alonso which featured much for the castanets and a tambourine.

The concert was hosted Austrian cultural journalist and TV presenter Barbara Rett who brought a little insight into the excerpts we would hear. She introduced the Geburtstagskind (birthday boy) and Villazón sang a dramatic ‘Se all’impero, amici Dei’ from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito as the vengeful Roman Emperor is conflicted by love. His voice did sound as if it took a little time for it to gain its full flexibility. Magdalena Kožená followed with a studied ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio’ from the same Mozart opera – almost in duologue with the nuanced clarinet obbligato – as Sesto yields to love. Kožená is a fine singer but does not always look the most relaxed of performers. She joined Regula Mühlemann and Michael Volle for a gently wafting Così fan tutte trio (‘Soave sia il vento’) as Fiordiligi and Dorabella – with Don Alfonso watching on – wish their lovers safe travel on the sea. Another characterful trio followed with Villazón, Volle and Fatma Said singing as Basilio, the Count and the countess’s maid, Susanna, in The Marriage of Figaro): ‘Cosa sento!’ involves the machinations concerning the infatuation of the Count’s page, Cherubino, for the Countess.

After all this Mozart in the city of the composer’s birth 266 years ago – and as Rett revealed it is now Paris-based Villazón’s second home – Rossini was next and Mühlemann sang Rosina’s cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ from his later prequel(!). It concerns Rosina’s love for Lindoro, the Count Almaviva in disguise. Both these characters, as well as Figaro himself, reappear in the Mozart opera. Mühlemann was technically excellent (with pin-sharp coloratura) and has an exceptionally engaging soprano voice.

Time for something entirely different and we now heard some Verdi, first it was an aria from his early pirate hokum Il corsaro which bought us Charles Castronovo’s fervent ‘Tutto parea sorridere’ which I believe Verdi ‘revisited’ when he composed ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore some years later. At least as heard through my loudspeakers, Castronovo revealed a wonderfully Italianate voice that was strong and bright. ‘È lui! Desso! l’Infante!’ had Villazón giving as good as he got as Don Carlo torn between helping his friend the Marquis of Posa (Volle) and his love for his now step-mother.

Apart from some fun the remainder of what we heard were examples of the red-hot passion of zarzuela (referred to by Rett as the ‘sister of operetta and opéra comique’). ‘Amor, vida de mi vida’ from Federico Moreno Torroba’s Maravilla revealed Domingo – despite a certain vocal fragility – has a remarkable voice for someone of any age let alone his in this aria full of emotion about a love triangle. Then Domingo conducted Villazón in Pablo Sorozábal’s very familiar ‘No puede ser’ from his La tabernera del puerto as Leandro heatedly declares his doubts about the woman he loves. Then there was more from Moreno Torroba and his achingly beautiful duet (‘Cállate, corazón!’) charting the parting of the ways between lovers, meltingly sung by Villazón and Said.

‘Al pensar en el dueño de mis amores’ is a patter song about the confusion caused by love from Ruperto Chapí’s Las hijas del Zebedeo and it displayed the captivating Mühlemann’s outstanding vocal dexterity as she sang lots of words very quickly indeed. Domingo returned to sing another impassioned duet ‘Se fue la ingrata’ from Emilio Arrieta’s Marina with Villazón.

¡Cincuentañero! ends with everyone singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Rolando Villazón

Then that fun really began as this memorable event drew to its close: first Volle, Covent Garden’s recent Scarpia and a world-renowned Hans Sachs, was a charismatic Tevye as he sang ‘If I were a rich man’ – in German – from Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof. Then Villazón and Mühlemann waltzed and were utterly charming during Franz Lehár’s evocative ‘Lippen schweigen’ (The Merry Widow). A playful Villazón and a still-intense Kožená had fun with some roses while singing a ‘Non ti scordar di me’ (Ernesto De Curtis) I certainly won’t forget for a while. Castronovo and Villazón enjoyed competing their way through Agustín Lara’s ‘Granada’ before a joyful ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ by Luigi Denza (I knew his son well in the past) survived the uncertain contributions from some of the magnificent seven singers in this concert. After all joined in to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Rolando Villazón there was a standing ovation and I doubt anyone went home unhappy after this fabulous celebration all in a good cause.

Jim Pritchard

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