Talk about gaining momentum! Tenor Ramón Vargas’s recital at La Scala started off limply, not helped by a very determined little frog which insisted on residing in his throat until the interval. He sang the Petrarch Sonnets, that began his programme, almost uniformly throughout – probably to hide that frog – with his magnificent accompanist, Mzia Bachtouridze, giving the only light and shade to Lizst’s three songs. His voice is rich and warm, and his technique spot on, but something was not quite working for him here.
A luke-warm applause greeted his entrance to sing de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, which he introduced, saying that although they were written for soprano Luisa Vela, and usually sung by a female singer, it was great music, so he was going to sing them too. It is not the first time that a man has taken on this cycle, in fact Rolando Villazón sung them on the La Scala stage recently. However, for my taste, there is nothing like a female voice for that suggestive gypsy sound – such as the cry that begins Polo, the last of the songs – evoking images full of Andalusian passion and pain. Vargas sang them perfectly well though.
The second part, consisting of Italian canzoni, each set by a different composer, was another matter as though the interval fairy had waved her magical music wand. The recital was up, up, up, from that moment on with an audience warming from polite applause to cries of bravo. Respighi’s Nebbie, was hauntingly intense, and Pizzetti’s I pastori, a setting of D’Annunzio’s poem, was full of nostalgia and longing.
The crescendo increased during the encores when Vargas courageously chose Don Ottavio’s aria from Don Giovanni, Il mio tesoro. A difficult aria, even when coddled by an orchestra, but laid bare with just a piano accompaniment would put any tenor to the test… a test that Vargas passed with ease. This from a singer who sings Rudolfos, Riccardos and Manricos back to back. He has an easy coloratura, extraordinarily long phrases due to perfect breath control, and full volume and an even tone throughout his range. This man must do more Mozart! He sang Don Ottavio at the Met three years ago and he’ll be singing Tito in Zurich next July… not enough. He announced, “I couldn’t resist singing Mozart”, so he obviously loves this music. Pereira, sign him up!
He also sang Mexican composer María Grever’s Te Quiero, Dijiste, which she wrote as her seven-year-old child was dying from cancer. The song has been performed by everyone from Nat King Cole to the Three Tenors, and the “Queen of Latin Pop”, Thalía, together with Robbie Williams, even performed it as an upbeat swing number. Vargas, who’s first child died shortly before his seventh birthday, made it personal, tender and touching.