High notes are the name of the game, but sometimes a bright tenor will exercise the low option. Consider the close of the first act of La Bohème. Mimì and Rodolfo have wandered offstage, headed for the Café Momus. He asks her to say she loves him. She complies. Puccini sets “Amor,” the one word that says it all, as a calm sigh of ecstasy, exhaled three times. The third time, Mimì crests on a high C, marked pianissimo. And Rodolfo? The score specifies a comfortable E, also pianissimo. But tradition sanctions a high C for Rodolfo as well, and a high C is what tenors usually offer — all too often in a squawk of naked panic, plus or minus an excruciating microtone.
You will not hear it that way from Rolando Villazon. “To me, the E gives the right mood,” he says. “If I go to the top C, I have to sing forte. It’s just showing off — and it makes it impossible for Mimì to float. Fortunately for opera, the time for showing off is over — we’re going back to what the composer wrote. But don’t think I don’t like some tradition. Don’t think I don’t like high notes! I’m a tenor!” A tenor, and enough of a scholar of recordings to know that his idol, Plácido Domingo, took the low road too when he recorded Bohème with Montserrat Caballé under Georg Solti.
Villazon’s Rodolfo has lit up the stage in Berlin, Bregenz, Hamburg and Brussels, as well as at New York City Opera, in a production seen nationally on the PBS series Live from Lincoln Center. When I first met Villazon, it was halftime at yet another Bohème, at Glyndebourne, this one a perfunctory modern-dress staging by David McVicar, conducted with Mahlerian gravity by Mark Wigglesworth. Nathan Gunn’s lanky urban cowboy of a Marcello was cutting a fine figure, but otherwise, most of the cast was fairly miserable, the two sopranos wailing like alley cats, off-key all night. In other respects, one could not have asked for a lovelier evening: the sky was sapphire, the breeze was balmy. The sun beating against the glass made the dressing room an inferno, until Villazon thoughtfully opened the window, spurning any anxiety over drafts.
“I do not run around all year in a scarf,” he said in a gently mocking tone.
Turning thirty-two this month, Villazon is just five years into his career. A ruthlessly abbreviated list of milestones might include his professional debut, in Massenet’s Manon in Genoa, second cast to Marcelo Álvarez as des Grieux; Gounod’s Roméo, in Lyon; and his Paris debut, at the Bastille, as Gounod’s Faust. Memories of live telecasts in Mexico of Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore before sellout crowds of roaring compatriots surely also hold a special place in his heart. This season has brought Villazon’s Metropolitan Opera debut (Oct. 21), in Verdi’s La Traviata, following on the heels of his friend and fellow Mexico City native Ramón Vargas; and, in January, his first Hoffmann in Offenbach’s opera, at Covent Garden. The title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo is on his calendar later this year, in Amsterdam.
His first Met Alfredo, opposite Renée Fleming’s much-praised Violetta, gave the love story a needed jolt of ardor, not competing with the diva’s highly accomplished star turn but complementing it with a portrait of equal interest, raising the drama to a higher order. From his entrance into the mêlée of Act I, the sheer vitality of his presence caught the eye. His fiery brindisi made a promise on which his aria in Act II promptly delivered, unleashing an ovation during which, disarmingly, Villazon neither broke character nor did not break character. He stood with downcast eyes, yet vibrant with emotions that belonged as much to Alfredo as to himself. Then came the cabaletta, that torrent of remorse, sung with a fierce, thrilling edge.
“I was very nervous, very excited,” Villazon said the day after his second performance. “Before the debut, my manager said to me, ‘Remember what Callas said. In the dark, all theaters are the same.’ But I told him, ‘I can’t think that way, and I don’t want to!’ I didn’t just want to go through it in a blur and then go and have dinner. I wanted to remember everything. At first, it was hard to maintain my concentration, not to let the emotion go wild, in ways that would affect my voice and acting. In the first act, you’re surrounded, and you’re singing to other characters, but in the aria, I had to face the dark — confront the Metropolitan! And say to the audience, ‘Here I am — singing for you.’ My chest was really pounding afterwards. Joan Dornemann gestured to me from the prompter’s box to slow down my breathing. There was still the cabaletta! That first night felt like first love, with a special fire you never feel again. You gain and you lose. The second performance felt like real life.”
Alfredo’s aria, complete with cabaletta (and a concluding high C Villazon does not sing in the opera house), is heard, along with a generous selection of other Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini, Cilèa and Mascagni, on Villazon’s new recital CD, recorded last summer and out this month. It is his first album under an exclusive contract with Virgin; a second, French installment is now in the planning stages. (Villazon also appears on Virgin’s new CD of Berlioz choral music.)
“Recording is hard,” Villazon acknowledges, citing among other things the necessity of singing in the morning. But already it has taught him a lot. “In front of the microphone, I can shape the phrases more, be more daring with crescendo and diminuendo. There are things you might be afraid to do in the opera house, because you think people won’t hear you. But now I’m discovering that they do.” In other words, the lessons of the studio have application in the theater. Happily, Villazon’s more deliberate craft in no way interferes with his innate sense of style and spontaneity of expression.
As a youngster in his native Mexico City, Villazon trained in theater and dance, as well as music. Further polishing ensued at the young-artists programs of the opera companies of San Francisco and Pittsburgh. The official biography passes in silence over an early period as a teacher of history and music, a stopgap that at a crucial juncture he considered making permanent.
“In that case,” his sweetheart Lucia Escobar told him, “I won’t marry you. You made me dream your dream. Live it, and I will follow you. But you must go all the way.” Escobar is a trained psychologist.
“The best companion for a tenor!” Villazon exclaims. “We met when she was fifteen and I was sixteen. She’s my first love, my only love — except for the stage!”
And she was not alone in sensing early where Villazon’s destiny lay. Bruce Zemsky, of Columbia Artists Management, got the vibe, too, in circumstances so improbable as to sound apocryphal — like the discovery of Lana Turner at Schwab’s Drug Store. “I was in Mexico City to hear my client Ramón Vargas as Werther at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and there was this adorable young man running around backstage doing the things a stage manager does,” Zemsky says. “And I asked Ramón, ‘Is he a singer?’ He had to be a singer. He just looked like a performer — very outgoing, very ebullient, very animated.”
On the spot, Zemsky asked Villazon to sing, which, reluctantly, he did, protesting that he wasn’t ready. Despite high notes he describes as “very green,” Zemsky was certain of some real potential and encouraged Villazon to keep working and to stay in touch. Just over half a year later, he heard Villazon again, also in Mexico, this time judging him “96 percent ready to sing professionally.” Villazon signed with Zemsky and was off and running. Robin Thompson, the associate artistic director of New York City Opera, was proud, indeed elated, to present Villazon’s local debut, though the triumph was bittersweet.
“Have you seen our new Bohème?” Thompson asked me one night at the Met. “You have to hear Villazon.” But the only remaining performance conflicted with a date I couldn’t break.
“You’ll have him back,” I supposed.
“I don’t think so,” Thompson answered gloomily. “We won’t be able to afford him.”
The tip registered, so when his first commercial recording appeared, I pounced. As much to Villazon’s amazement as to mine, it was Daniel Barenboim’s complete Der Fliegende Holländer (on Teldec), with Villazon as the Steersman, one of the dramatically extraneous seafaring lads Wagner brings aboard his ships to supply atmosphere. Villazon comes through in spades, flinging out his song in a blaze of openhearted romance that subsides disarmingly into sleepiness and dreams. Even his German is good.
“I sing in French and Italian, and my first recording is in German,” Villazon laughs. “They called me and said, ‘We want you to record Wagner,’ and I hung up the phone! I could do Mozart in German — Tamino, maybe, in The Magic Flute. Fritz Wunderlich sang the Steersman, so that’s fine. Otherwise, for Wagner, I will wait some decades.” His cadences, in excellent English, are very, very emphatic.
Catching Villazon’s New York Rodolfo belatedly on video, shortly before my visit to Glyndebourne, I was put in mind of the maiden recordings of the very young Giuseppe di Stefano: a question less of timbre than of immediacy, of an instinct for the communicative phrase, aristocratic yet natural and unforced. I wonder if di Stefano was in fact one of Villazon’s paragons.
“At one point in my studies, I listened a lot to di Stefano,” he answers. “I love the way he says things. There’s a pirate Faust from the Met with a beautiful crescendo on high C. The technique is unhealthy in the passaggio. But with words and phrasing, he’s wonderful. It’s not just notes. He tells you the story. Every word is full of meaning. And that’s what touches people. I don’t believe only in beautiful singing. When opera is really good, it doesn’t just touch the ears. It opens your chest and scrambles you up.”
Of the tenors he listens to, Villazon singles out Jussi Björling, Beniamino Gigli (“less”), Nicolai Gedda (as a paragon of stylistic versatility) and Alain Vanzo (his model for Roméo). But above all, Domingo: “His was the first operatic voice I heard, on the album Perhaps Love, with John Denver.” He breaks into song in a spot-on imitation of Domingo in his populist vein, with an ardor and sincerity that are at the same time rather touching and laugh-out-loud absurd. “I love it!” he says when the song is over. “I still listen to it. And once I had heard it, I bought all his albums.”
“You have to be careful what you listen to,” he continues. “Everything you hear, you take away something. Some people hate crossover. I don’t hate it. I hope someday I can sing with Bryn Terfel. He’s the type of singer who can sing what he likes. It’s in his blood. It just comes out. If you do crossover just to sell CDs and to be famous, no! I don’t want the goal of my career to be money. I was never ambitious that way. The goal is to sing. A consequence I love is applause and fame. Anyone who says no is a liar. Or suffering from false modesty.”
As Zemsky sensed when he first saw Villazon scurrying about backstage, the man was put on earth to perform: to share a joie de vivre fed by much more than music. He is a voracious reader of vastly eclectic tastes, apt to recite poetry, con amore, at the drop of a hat. At Glyndebourne, he was immersed in Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a frail, orange-covered Penguin paperback of impressive vintage, plucked from a bookshelf in his rented country cottage.
“My first passion,” he says, “was literature. But you can’t put in words what music is.” He has a flair, too, for drawing and whiles away downtime at rehearsals drawing caricatures and sketches that in another life might have earned him the succession to the mantle of Al Hirschfeld, who drew him once. The Hirschfeld and some handiwork of his own are on view on his informative, uncommonly graceful website.
“I love metaphors,” Villazon says. “I used to say that singing is like flying, but really, I’ve only flown in planes. Sometimes I think of the voice as a bow and arrow. But mostly, I think of the voice as a horse. It’s hard to make a horse change its stride. I’ve been fortunate that nature gave me a nice horse. But the important thing is to learn to ride it.”