Rolando Villazon's new album coincides with the Mexican tenor's appearances as a judge and mentor on the TV reality show, Popstar to Operastar. It's no surprise, then, that this selection of newly and previously recorded tracks is designed to appeal to the broadest possible section of the CD-buying public. The greater surprise is that, with the new recordings, Villazon has allowed himself to be drawn so far away from his usual musical comfort zone.
Look down Villazon's discography and you'll see that it largely consists of the 19th century repertoire with which he made his name, spiced up with a couple of recent Baroque adventures. Here, for the first time, he indulges in some lighter musical fare, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night and Mitch Leigh's The Impossible Dream. These songs are the disc's undoing. Show tunes are a toughie for any opera singer, and Villazon, like many before him, has fallen into the trap of not sufficiently toning down his operatic delivery. The effect is exacerbated by the fact that singing in English is not his forte; he knows this, which is why he stuck to Italian-language arias for his Handel album. One has to wonder, listening to his thickly accented, operatic rendition of The Impossible Dream, why he and his marketing men didn't think to apply the same logic here.
It isn't all bad, though. The newly recorded arias by Donizetti, Verdi and Tosti show the extent to which Villazon has vocally and dramatically owned this repertoire in recent years, even if they're perhaps not as effortlessly sung as the disc's older tracks. Of the earlier recordings, the Handel is a particular pleasure; Villazon's interpretations are a far cry from the coolly elegant poise of Ian Bostridge and won't be to the taste of die-hard early performance enthusiasts, but that is also their appeal. They can and should be enjoyed for the way in which he injects these stylised Baroque masterpieces with Romantic warmth and fruitiness of tone, carried out with a thorough mastery of the repertoire's technical demands.
Villazon is a great singer and performer. He and his label should have believed in his ability to pull in the masses with what he is good at. Namely, opera.