Rarely performed repertoire holds a special place in my heart. There is something very exciting about finding music that is rarely or never played only to discover musical treasures that have been lurking out of the public’s reach. Of course, the opposite is often true, and it turns out that the unearthed music has been hidden away for a reason. Sadly, the latter was the case at Rolando Villazón and kammerorchesterbasel’s recital at Cadogan Hall.

Rolando Villazón © Anja Frers
Rolando Villazón
© Anja Frers

The concert started out promisingly enough, with a very charmingly played rendition of the overture from Mozart’s Lucio Silla. The orchestra played on modern instruments, except for the somewhat puzzling inclusion of natural horns and trumpets. The difference in timbre was jarring, and they did not blend as well with the rest of orchestra as they would, had they used modern instruments. Still, the orchestra produced a very attractive sound, with an almost surprisingly plush string section. Perhaps more due to me being more used to period instruments in this kind of rep than anything else. While the fast outer sections of the overture were bursting with energy, the middle slow section was really rather boring.

Few vocal crises in the past few years have been written about more than the one of Rolando Villazón; his throat surgery in 2009 left many wondering whether he would ever come back to the international opera stage. Obviously, he has returned, and his return has been interesting to follow, with Mozart seemingly making up the backbone of his new repertoire, with a series of recordings of Mozart operas all featuring him in the leading tenor role. While the voice is not what it was seven or eight years ago, there is still some musicianship left, and he is at times a very exciting singer. Tuesday’s recital, however, was not one of those times.

The concert featured some very rarely performed items, namely a selection of Mozart’s concert arias for tenor. The concert arias for soprano are perhaps the most well known and most performed, but Mozart wrote them for all voice types. Sadly, the concert arias for tenor are not the most exciting pieces Mozart wrote, with generally rather uninspired music. Mozart requires a singer who can bring out all of the subtle colours and mood changes in the music, even more so when they are as boring as the tenor concert arias. Villazón did not bring this subtlety and the programming of arias in mostly the same key and the same tempo, at least in the first half, made for a recital distinctly lacking in appeal.

In addition to the less than exciting music, perhaps the biggest problem was Villazón’s voice. It is simply not colourful enough to do this music justice. Villazón’s tendency of trying to vary his vocal colour by outright crooning and ridding his voice of vibrato became tiring after a while. This was especially apparent in the recitative and aria Misero! o sogno – Aura, che intorno spiri, where the character goes mad and starts seeing ghosts and hearing voices, almost a little mad scene. But there was no discernible change in timbre from the slow opening, melancholy section of the aria to the fast, despairing, agitated “mad” section. Without the texts in front of me, I could hardly have guessed that the singer was going mad on stage. This seemingly lacking connection with the text was a general feature of the concert.

There were, however, some high points to the evening. In “Dove mai trovar quel ciglio”, an aria from Mozart’s comic opera Lo sposo deluso, Villazón got to show off his not inconsiderable comic talent – a tad much at times – but overall very enjoyable, perhaps owing more to Villazón’s stage persona than the singing. He also got to show off some very impressive coloratura in Va, dal furor portata, an aria written by Mozart when he was only nine. The aria sounded a lot more baroque than the others, and was structured as a standard da capo aria. This kind of heroic, florid singing is something that Villazón does rather well, and the subtleties in the text are mostly non-existent. There was even a decent attempt at a trill.

Villazón sang three encores, all Mozart. The first was a very competent, but (like the rest of the concert) vocally monochromatic “Il mio tesoro” from Don Giovanni. The next two were comic numbers, Con ossequio, con rispetto and Clarice cara mia sposa, and were enjoyable, even though Villazón went a bit overboard with the vocal effects. In the latter aria, however, he showed some very impressive patter singing.

Performing obscure repertoire can be a daunting task. Sometimes, you can unearth long forgotten treasures, but often, the music has been left unperformed for a reason. Perhaps the music at Tuesday’s concert should be once again left to obscurity?

**111