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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 31 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 05
Rolando Villazón and Jonas Kaufmann: The greatest tenors in the greatest sound
Arts & Entertainment
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Rolando Villazón and Jonas Kaufmann: The greatest tenors in the greatest sound

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Great opera singers historically seem to come in waves. Not long ago, we suffered a drought of good operatic tenors, but today we have an amazing flood of truly fine tenors (as well as coloratura mezzos, etc.). This review covers my reactions to new releases on Blu-ray Audio-only discs by two of the greatest in the current crowd: Rolando Villazón and Jonas Kaufmann. (For technical information about Audio-only Blu-rays, search my earlier articles at www.sgn.org, clicking on the Arts and Entertainment section.)

As anyone following Villazón's career knows, he recently went through a vocal crisis (as so many of even the greatest opera singers do). I'm happy to report that he seems in this recital not only completely recovered, but has also added a more refined discipline to his vocal technique. This lovely Audio-only Blu-ray disc shows a voice that maintains a better focus to his sound, with undiminished breath control and emotionally expressive legato line. The whole show is a delight, made especially tasteful by the sensitive accompaniment of conductor Gianandrea Noseda and the Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino, all captured in gorgeous, spacious sound. Perhaps the voice is a little lighter than the baritonal sound he used to flaunt, but he retains plenty of power when called for.

What makes this disc special, aside from Villazón's lovely sound, is his artistry. I can't think of any other current tenor, other than Jonas Kaufmann, who employs more vocal magic to give expression to emotion. Very few singers shade phrasing with the care shown here. Most sing with tone that changes very little within an aria; Villazón changes his sound to convey the emotional intent of every line. This used to be called 'word pointing' or words shaded to point at an emotion. And, like Maria Callas, he varies the speed of his vibrato to indicate intensity of feeling. Most important, these vocal techniques do not seem premeditated but rather appear to come directly from his gut feeling.

Villazón's talent and his passion seem perfectly suited to the content of this disc, which is simply called Verdi. Almost half of the program comprises arias plus three songs (orchestrated by modern composer Luciano Berio), all of which are not generally familiar, starting with Verdi's first opera, Oberto. From there, we travel through middle Verdi favorites, all the way to this final work, Falstaff. Along the way we get thrilling high notes, gorgeous phrasing, and such a compelling articulation of the words that I was uncharacteristically driven to check the printed translations to see exactly what he was saying. Villazón is a very special artist, showcased here to excellent advantage.

Despite their vastly different voices and repertoire, Villazón and Jonas Kaufmann share some artistic qualities. Both are superb artists who have learned how to take the vocal arts to its highest level, both technically and expressively. Both use maximum dynamic range, moving from stunning pianissimos to fortissimos in completely smooth transitions. Both vary their vocal timbre for word pointing. Both are superb actors on stage, and both are attractive.

While Villazón is a lyric tenor, Kaufmann is a heroic tenor, possessed of a more powerful voice that allows his musical intelligence a vastly greater arsenal of vocal resources with which to express his art. On top of this, Kaufmann has created (or re-created, if you go back far enough) an utterly different, more nuanced way of singing Wagner than any tenor of my experience. Just listen on this disc to how he begins 'In fernem Land' from Wagner's Lohengrin. No other Wagnerian tenor I know of can sustain such beautiful soft singing as this. To state the obvious, it makes the crescendo to louder moments all the more powerful.

Kaufmann's Audio-only Blu-ray disc is called simply Wagner. He starts with extended bits from Die Walküre and Siegfried, followed by the big aria from Wagner's early opera, Rienzi. Tannhäuser, Meistersinger, and Lohengrin follow. Then comes the most daring part: he sings Wagner's 'Wessendonck Lieder,' which are almost always sung by a mezzo or a soprano. (My favorites were recorded by Christa Ludwig and Kirsten Flagstad.) While I wouldn't wish to give up those versions, Kaufmann succeeds wonderfully because of his supreme artistry.

Jonas Kaufmann is simply the most exciting vocal artist working at a time when the world is full of great singers. I'm grateful that we have both Villazón and Kaufmann in this new, nearly perfect audio medium, to be treasured for all time.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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