In recent years, Rolando Villazón’s career has become inextricable from the world of W.A. Mozart. The tenor has begun recording a cycle of Mozart’s seven mature operas, live from the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. The cycle began with Don Giovanni in 2011 and continued with Così fan tutte last summer. Next up is Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the summer of 2014 – the cycle is an ambitious undertaking which Rolando curated and for which he serves as artistic consultant. His latest album with Deutsche Grammophon, Mozart Concert Arias, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Antonio Pappano, explores a lesser-known side of the composer. This collection of arias was penned under the radar: for the operas of other composers, at the service of individual singers, for stage works of his own which never came to fruition – works that have rarely been recorded. Villazón set out to uncover rare musical gems and, in the process, discovered a friend: Mozart.
“I think the big challenge is that it’s new for all of us. In that it is different from singing ‘Il mio tesoro’, of which we’ve heard so many great interpretations by so many great tenors, under so many great conductors,” he says.
Although he had already fallen in love with Mozart during recording sessions of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, the tenor forged an even deeper connection through this project. “No composer has spoken to me as directly. I feel like I have found a dear companion in him. In these pieces, just as in everything he wrote, Mozart demands the personality of the artist. He wants you to give yourself.”
The selection of ten arias covers a wide range of emotion and historical territory. For Villazón, numbers such as Se al labbro mio non credi, composed for the celebrated tenor Anton Raaff – who would sing the title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo – deserve to be heard more often: “Se al labbro is worthy of a place alongside Mozart’s best-known arias.” The most mature work on the album, Müsst ich auch durch tausend Drachen, dating to around 1783 and the only German-language track, was most likely intended for a comic opera that Mozart never completed. At the other end of the spectrum, Va’, dal furor portata was written when the composer was only nine years old.
“It’s fantastic to compare the very young Mozart with the mature Mozart and track his development,” says the tenor. “Who knows what he would have left to us had he lived a bit longer.”
As fate would have it, Villazón stumbled upon the music while sifting through scores at a shop in Munich. “I was actually looking for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, when I discovered this edition of concert arias for tenor,” he recalls. “I went through it and said: ‘This is it. This is a project.’” In 2011, while singing the title role in Massenet’s Werther at the Royal Opera House in London, he approached Pappano about making a recording.
For the conductor, some arias resemble entire scenes in their dramatic structure. “It’s quite a challenge because a lot of these pieces are from a very young Mozart. They’re not the Mozart we know. They have an identity all their own. There’s a tremendous energy to them, and the singer and orchestra have to go at them with so much fire: you have to find the freedom, the newness and the youth of the music.”
Villazón notes that the recitative Misero! O sogno and following aria Aura che intorno spiri demand the full gamut of technical skills from a singer: “Bravura, interpretation, how to manage the text. And the high notes! But the beauty of Mozart is that it’s not suddenly, ‘Bang! A high note.’ It’s simply another note that you need to go through to maintain the melody.” The tenor found an ideal partner in the London Symphony Orchestra. “These are players who listen, who search and work together with the singer and the conductor. It felt wonderful, as if I was suspended from the gorgeous line that the orchestra was playing. From every point of view this music has been a treat to perform.”
Pappano, who has been recording with the orchestra since 1997, praises the musicians’ energy and intuition. “They create an environment where the singer can be alive and inhabit the character, an essential element in opera, where the exchange of energy is so important.” This is also no small feat given Mozart’s high demands on the orchestra to create its own drama in exchanges with the singer. “They want the best and will follow you to achieve a certain expression,” says the conductor. “The sound is gleaming, full of youth and shine. That is what I really love.”
And he found it a joy to hear Villazón indulge himself in comic numbers such as Con ossequio, con rispetto, written for Salzburg performances of Niccolò Piccinni’s opera, L’astratto, ovvero Il giocator fortunato, in 1775. “The character is paying compliments in one voice, while expressing what he feels in the asides – under his breath, so to speak,” explains Pappano. “That gave Rolando the opportunity to show his feeling for comedy. And I’ve experimented a little bit by changing the colours in the orchestra. When he’s insulting, I have the violins use a chatter-like articulation, and then at the end, a more nasal, snarly sound. Somehow I think Mozart would have approved. People need to laugh and enjoy.”
Villazón observes that even in humorous moments, Mozart’s music can convey the most profound insight – allowing his affinity for the composer to constantly grow. “There are moments performing this music when you are suddenly in heaven,” he says. “Mozart makes you laugh but also, perhaps most importantly, makes you dream. Somehow the fun qualities co-exist with the serious. This almost impossible combination is what makes him unique.”