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When Rolando Villazon returned to the opera stage last spring after a five-month absence, it was easy to see he was not the same man. He looked cheerful enough in a flowered shirt at an impromptu Covent Garden recital but the voice was hard at the edges and the lustre had gone from his eye. The Mexican tenor explained he had gone home to recharge batteries after feeling worn out with life at the top, but at every appearance over the past year he has looked less and less comfortable. Cancellations abounded and last week he surprised no-one by taking the rest of the year off.
The reason, he says in a website apology to ‘my audience, colleagues and friends’ , is a cyst on the vocal cords that requires surgery. But opera professionals fear it is something less specific and much more serious – not just for the well-liked Villazon but for the future of tenor singing, which hangs in the balance. What seemed to be an orderly succession to the semi-retired Placido Domingo with Villazon as front-runner has now become a very open question.
Ever since the Three Tenors lit up the 1990 World Cup in Rome and began counting their fortune in millions, expectations have been artificially inflated in the higher reaches of the human voice. While Luciano Pavarotti, Domingo and José Carreras protested nobly that their intention was to expand the audience for art, the event reinvented opera as a sporting contest and the stakes became unreal. As the three gladiators aged and waned, the search for Top Tenor became a pressure game.
In Tenor (Yale University Press, £20), a generic history out this month, John Potter, a singer in the Hilliard Ensemble, argues that high lyric voices, as distinct from heavy Wagner tones, were always scarce. Great tenors tended to come once a decade. Caruso, Schipa, Gigli each reigned without much contest in their time.
To be a top tenor required more than just high notes, good technique, musical intelligence and blazing ambition. It demanded stamina over the long haul. A slow-burner like Franco Corelli could be 40 before he reached the world stage.
The discipline required was not always of the obvious kind. Caruso smoked, drank and slept around, but there was a new role he was learning on his bedside table the night he died in August 1921, after the surgical removal of a rib to ease pressure on his overworked lung. Jussi Bjorling, the peerless Swede, went on stage at Covent Garden minutes after suffering a heart attack; his last recording, Verdi’s Requiem, shows the voice unimpaired by staggering alcohol abuse. Corelli, thinking the sexual orgasm inhibited his vocal climax, gave up sex like a like a high priest through the season.
Between their monastic dedication and the trivial sensations of Paul Potts, Il Divo and other variety acts lies a gulf of legend and accomplishment that cannot be bridged by television gimmicks. Any punter can sing a couple of arias, but what it takes a tenor to sustain an entire role is more than just a voice – as Andrea Bocelli, the former pop balladeer, discovered to grievous embarrassment when he tried out as Werther in Detroit. The development of an opera tenor is an arduous process of trial and error, and over the past decade we have seen one aspirant after another burn out as they reached for the glittering crown.
There was the Argentine José Cura, 46, who flowered for a couple of seasons before deciding that he needed to be a conductor, a composer, a stage director, a visiting professor - anything other than a high-hitting tenor. His schedule over the coming year involves productions in Zurich, Liege and Oslo, no longer the heights of parnassus. His compatriot Marcelo Alvarez had even less time at the top before he began to market himself as Il Duetto with the unremarkable Italian, Salvatore Licitra.
Roberto Alagna, 45, a Sicilian spotted in a Paris pizza bar, has risen and fallen so many times in tandem (and out) with his wife Angela Gheorghiu that it is tempting to add him to the discards. Alagna has been thrown out of the Metropolitan Opera for misconduct and has walked off the stage of La Scala in the middle of Aida. But he is, on the night, the real thing and, if his discipline returns, he may yet be a contender.
Over the past five years, ever since he stormed Covent Garden in Tales of Hoffman, most of the smart money was on Rolando Villazon to inherit the Domingo mantle, the more so since Domingo was a personal mentor. With a range that descended to low baritone and a lightness that let him sing baroque, Villazon was an all-rounder, good trouper and general nice guy. Married with two children to a psychologist whom he had dated since their teens, he seemed in his mid-30s to have domestic stability and all the right priorities.
But the music business, mesmerised by the Three Tenors, piled on extraneous pressures in a plan to make Villazon something he was not. Three years ago Universal launched a bidding war to lure him away from Virgin Classics and pair him up with the voluptuous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko. That summer, the pair were clinched up in lovey posters all over Europe. His agent joined Universal, creating a one-line strategy for his stage and media career. When Villazon crashed out with stress and exhaustion, the strategy was revised, but not the expectation. By cancelling the next nine months Villazon has bought himself a window of recovery but he has also implanted doubts about his temperament that will haunt his eventual return.
That leaves just two lyric tenors still standing. Juan Diego Florez, 36, stole Pavarotti’s title of King of the High Cs by rippling off all nine top notes in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment without a hint of strain or a change of expression. At La Scala he broke a 74-year house rule by reprising the aria. Often paired with the forthright French soprano Natalie Dessay, the Peruvian, who is back at Covent Garden in July, is a hard-working colleague with no outsized ego – something of a backhanded compliment, since it implies a lack of strong charisma.
That’s where Jonas Kaufmann checks in. A slow burner at Zurich Opera under the leadership of Franz Welser-Möst, Kaufmann is the first German contender for top tenor since the short-lived Franz Wunderlich who died 43 years ago in a mysterious incident at a hunting lodge. It has taken the tousle-haired Kaufmann until he is 40 to become a heartthrob and his rise has been so swift that his record label has yet to launch a working website. He replaces Villazon in Covent Garden’s Don Carlos this autumn and is current first-choice partner for Renée Fleming, Netrebko, Gheorghiu and the rest of the diva set.
In the absence of Villazon, the burden of history is deflected onto the unassuming Kaufmann. He is now chief contender. Whether he can last the pace against Alagna and Florez, and whether opera will ever crown a German emperor, is the unseen neon question that hangs in flickering lights above the biggest of world stages.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]