Seeing Rolando Villazón in recital for the first time was surprising. I was expecting him to bound on stage like a hyperactive puppy, agitated and full of life, gazing wide-eyed at the audience, searching for its approval; instead I found a composed artist, calming taking his place at the centre of the stage, thoroughly prepared to tackle Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
This is obviously a cycle he knows intimately, and while his German – like his Italian – was not always spot on, he knew exactly what he was saying and communicated it effectively and affectingly. There was nothing theatrical about his manner, he was simple and sincere, and his almost verismo approach gave Schumann’s lieder a powerful impact in a new way. It is certainly not Dichterliebe as I’ve heard it before, but it worked.
He moved on to territory closer to home with De Falla’s Siete Canciones populares españolas, which he sang with gusto and a suitably macho temperament, with some hand flourishes and foot stamping. A series of Verdi songs however, exposed some of the vocal difficulties that it seemed cruel to mention in the opening paragraph, but which most certainly are present: a sometimes slightly raucous sound at the middle of the voice, little power at the bottom, and top notes which whiten out and seem to go backwards rather than projecting out into the auditorium. This is only worrying for Villazón’s future career, not for the audience, for his intonation was always spot on, and his musicality let him juggle his vocal problems so they were, if not unnoticeable, not disturbing.
Four of Fernando Obradors’ Canciones clásicas españolas finished the official programme, and they suited Villazón perfectly. They are little gems and, like the De Falla, were elegantly sung with no unnecessary flamboyance of gesture or vocal exaggeration. Obradors gives more difficulty to the pianist than the singer, but when the accompanist is Daniel Barenboim…! He was stylish, sensitive and almost self-effacing throughout the evening.
After much banter between Villazón and Barenboim, to the delight of all, and especially small clumps of middle-aged women scattered around the theatre, a little of Villazón’s enthusiastic puppy emerged. Two Tosti songs and Massenet’s Ouvre tes yeux bleus were the encores before Villazón went off for his beer: “Tosti, dopo birra!”