Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Rolando Villazon Opera Gala at the Royal Festival Hall

Villazon, Matshikiza & Voronkov

There are certain singers whom I will always reserve a special place for, artists I credit for instigating my prolonged love affair with the art of opera. Rolando Villazon is one such person - his impassioned performance with Anna Netrebko made Massenet's Manon the first opera I fell in love with. Since then, my knowledge of the classical arts has expanded considerably, a growth which unfortunately coincided with Villazon's various health issues and his slight vocal decline from the heights of 2006-07. Nevertheless, it has long been my ardent wish to see him perform in the flesh, for what this artist has to offer stretches far beyond the confines of opera. His natural gaiety I have long since admired, and no matter the condition of his throat, there is a frankness to his tone that lends his performances beautiful heart.

The programme could be easily divided into quarters, the first of which paid tribute to French expression and was heavily dominated by the songs of Jules Massenet. Massenet, in any form, is lyric music, lyrical to the very extreme. Hence, it does not seem a natural choice for Villazon, whose voice is coloured with plenty of warmth but very little reserve. A purist (and the average Frenchman) would disagree with his approach and pronunciation; but in terms of passion, he delivered strongly. His opening aria, 'Ah! Tout est bien fini' was a prime example of this; he took what was, in its original conception, a beseeching prayer of piety and transfigured it into a vigorous outpour of torment.

Yet the effect was nevertheless, profoundly riveting. His gift is for sincerity is immense, and it has a great capacity to impart joy, sweeping all concerns over detail aside. I am, perhaps, a perfect example of the generation who relies on Youtube to further their classical education, but absolutely nothing is even comparable to his effect live. Appearing onstage with a broad maverick's smile, he furrowed that heavy brow and the first notes out his throat were so fantastically warm and emotive. Belief seemed to weigh down every phrase, right through to the ecclesiastical end. So earthy and wondrous is his sound that all one can do is close their eyes in ecstasy and revel in its glory. In doing so, we understood and accepted; Villazon strives not for authenticity nor perfection but to compel with his earnestness.

Following on from the loud cheer he earned, burgeoning young talent Matshikiza gave her first appearance of the evening, with Massenet's Elegie (a song which has coincidentally been heavily featured these weeks as the music accompanying the first pas de deux MacMillan's ballet at the Royal Opera House). She showed a clear voice and natural expression, but there were some intonation problems that would continue to plague her throughout the first half.

The grand duet of this first quarter was disappointingly underwhelming, particularly given this the lusciousness of Bizet's orchestration. Neither voice seemed to have truly warmed up yet, and while Villazon was clearly comfortable in a role he has sung many times before, Matshikiza's inexperience showed. Not entirely convincing as the spiry priestess, she also missed the high note before the final refrain of the climatic ainsi que toi je me souviens.

By contrast, the Italian quarter was much improved. Villazon's solo 'E la solita storia del pastore' showcased the true power of his voice. The Italianate school requires none of the nuanced restraint of the French, and accordingly, Villazon soared with a great sense of relief. Whatever he feels, he seems to feel more keenly than any other - he sings like a man who lives life with grand relish. As his arms gesticulated grandly, the glorious richness of his voice, almost velvety in its flight, permeated the large hall with remarkable ease. When he is anguished, there is no plane of his face that is not distorted in distress and when he is overjoyed he, quite simply, glows. The transfixed audience gave him his due reward. Matshikiza's 'Signore Ascolta' displayed her renewed confidence; however she still lacks an edge of credibility to her performances. While Villazon's level of immersion is perhaps excessive, Matshikiza could do with emoting more, even if it is only a gala rendition. Nevertheless, their climatic 'O Soave Fanciulla' which closed the first half was headily intoxicating in its dashing passion.

We proceeded, then, to the light-hearted, humorous third quarter, where both Villazon and Matshikiza excelled. Any person at all familiar with Villazon's repertoire will know how he has made the role of Nemorino in Donizetti's 'L'elisir D'amore' his own, as both performer and director. When he bounded out after the interval, beer and juggling props in hand, he was completely in his element. In his infectious exuberance, Villazon dotes upon the crowd; his head turns to look at the audience on every tier, he laughs freely and smiles with the room at large. His Nemorino was pandering, playful and, most importantly, lovable. In an art that is often berated for taking itself too seriously and of having jokes too secular for a wider audience, Villazon straddles the world of entertainment and artistic clarity with apparent ease. His entire approach can be summarised by his rendition of the famous aria 'Una furtiva lagrima' - in the beginning, his voice was slightly raspy and in his earnestness, he leant heavily on every note like a crutch, which slightly distorted the beginnings of his phrases. Yet, the emotion rang true. In the place of sobriety was desperation and when his hand, trembling slightly, reached out before him, it was a gesture of deep-rooted tenderness. His rendition betrays not vulnerability (for Nemorino is far too stupid for that) but pernicious hope, radiating in a sweet sigh of longing that held the audience spellbound. When his Nemorino declares "Si puo morir d'amor!" ("I could die of love!") with such simple yearning, it is delectably irresistible.

The final quarter of the programme was a feast of Spanish song, giving Mexican born Villazon a rare chance perform in his native language. He did so with vigour; his 'Ya mis horas felices' was my personal highlight of the evening with its unapologetically dark drama. The final duet on the programme, 'Si, torero quiero se,' complete with little sashays across the stage from both singers, seemed a great love letter from stage to audience. It is such a gift, this blessing of both song and happiness. He exudes sunshine, this man. When he performs, there is no gap between him and his audience, save his immense talent. By the time they finished their last high notes, arms outstretched as if to embrace the entire world, the audience had succumbed entirely to their combined charms. Together, they produced the kind of evening where one has to simply forget all technical expectations and requirements and just luxuriate in the incandescent expression of the art. Indeed, after the three roaring encores, the stranger in the seat next to mine turned, with a dreamy expression suffused on his countenance, and murmured in awe; "what a wonderful, wonderful evening!"

Receiving the adulation

Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra

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