The Art of the Comeback

Monday, April 02, 2012 - 05:00 PM

Rolando Villazón Rolando Villazón (Gabo/Deutsche Grammophon)

In the 20th century, soprano Anna Moffo was one of those first singers to fall prey to the systems of overbooking and heavy travel, resulting in a vocal breakdown brought on by physical exhaustion less than 20 years following her professional operatic debut.

Since then, we’ve seen a strain of vocal setbacks and comebacks, chief among them being Rolando Villazón, born just two years before Moffo’s decline. In 2007, twelve years after the Mexican tenor rose to prominence, he underwent his first surgery to correct a vocal issue. In 2010, he went back under the knife to remove a congenital cyst in one of his vocal cords. And following that, his focuses seemed to lie on the more bizarre reaches of a singer’s career, including mentoring and judging alongside Katherine Jenkins on the ITV show Popstar to Operastar.

For a while it seemed over entirely for the young tenor who did too much, too soon. His engagements were given over to tenors like Piotr Beczala and Vittorio Grigolo, and he explored areas of the repertoire that seemed unlikely fits to his voice—notably recordings of varying success of Handel and Vivaldi.

Last year’s production of Werther at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, however, signaled another turning point. Villazón was deemed back in the saddle after a critically-lauded performance as the titular tortured poet. Benoît Jacquot’s production, preserved on DVD from its Parisian run and also featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Sophie Koch, afforded the tenor no opportunities to conceal any remaining weaknesses, adding to the vulnerability of a young man unsure of how to mitigate his tumultuous emotions.

“Villazón gives one of his most remarkable performances to date,” wrote Tim Ashley for the Guardian last May in a five-star review of the performance. "His artistry… is as astonishing as ever, fusing sound, sense and gesture in an uncompromising quest for veracity. His Werther is more complex, if at times less sympathetic than some. The grandeur of the man's passions is balanced by morbidly adolescent self-pity. His final declaration of love to Charlotte brims with the terrifying potential for sexual assault, while his suicide is messy and unromanticized.”

Minus the visuals, one loses a sense of this terrifying nature on an album (Deutsche Grammophon’s recording of the same performance drops tomorrow). However it is remarkable how much Villazón has been able to rebound from his setbacks. Perhaps his triumph was due in part to his directorial stewardship of the same opera earlier that year in Lyon (he makes his return to directing this May with L’Elisir d’Amore in Baden-Baden). There’s a remarkable fluidity of tone that belies any festering issues with Villazón’s characteristic ardor and pathos. The top notes are more assured, the product is satisfying.

But Werther should be more than merely satisfying. The pinch of having so many recording opportunities afforded to star singers now is that it can track the progress of a singer, but it can also serve as a stinging reminder of what once was, offering nostalgia in its truest sense—the painful desire to return home. Villazón’s 2005 recordings of “Lorsque l’enfant revient” and “Pourquoi me réveiller” on his disc of Gounod and Massenet arias is more recklessly terrifying, subjugating the beauty of Massenet’s score for the cathartic sufferings inherent in the title of Goethe’s original source material. I quote novelist Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics when I say that if once Villazón’s voice “had been sugared and crackly, now it was porridge, grueled.”

Perhaps it doesn’t quite reach this nadir, at least not until Antonio Pappano brings his orchestra into full flourish with a judicious hand. And, given the alternative of a Villazónian career being spent on variety shows and recording crossover albums with Céline Dion, it’s a welcome addition to the operatic recording canon and a galvanizing return to form.

On another side of the coin entirely, soprano Natalie Dessay (cheekily nicknamed by some critics as “Natalie Disabled”) has suffered similar vocal issues to those of Villazón, undergoing a similar rollercoaster of surgeries and cancellations. But she's been returning to major houses in more confident and consistent form when compared to her colleague. She came to the Met last January in a revival of Mary Zimmerman’s Lucia di Lammermoor after a two-year absence and treads its boards once again starting with a run as Violetta this week. Adding to the unconventional trilogy of Met appearances, she sings Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare next season.

Her own newest recording, released earlier last month on the Virgin label, focuses on the early vocal works of Claude Debussy, 150 years following the composer’s birth. It’s an odd juxtaposition against the grandiose, melodramatic emotions of Verdi’s tearjerker, but Dessay’s voice has an impenetrable parlor quality that seems at home in this repertoire. She sings in whispers rather than gusts and her top range has lost much of its luster, but she still has that magpie-like tone that has carried her through light coloratura rep.

It’s less successful vocally than Villazón’s Werther, but it does boast more of that dramatic intensity than we hear in the live recording from ROH. But will this violet hour (in Bernard DeVoto’s words, the “hour of hush and wonder, when the affections glow again and valor is reborn”) of a recital disc transition Dessay into Joe Green’s own Violet? Those colors have yet to come into full view.

Weigh in: Can Rolando Villazón and Natalie Dessay recover from their vocal setbacks and continue to have flourishing careers? Are alternatives like directing viable fallbacks? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo, above right: Natalie Dessay in La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera, 2009. Credit: Ken Howard


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Comments [3]

Domenico St. Angelo from California

In a nation where the young must strive to be forever younger and where anything less than perfection at all times is not to be tolerated, I am saddened by this exercise inclusive of Ms. Dessay.

Singing opera is difficult. It requires enormous talent, enormous concentration, and it requires that the instrument remain in good condition. The instrument, however, is part of your body – and, therefore, unfortunately, part of the aging process. It is subject to our emotions, our physical condition, our mental strength and our talent. While Mr. Dobbs commented that he was “sad by what he heard” in the Met transmission of La Traviata, I was moved. The metaphor of Violetta’s remaining short time on earth and Ms. Dessay remaining short time on the opera stage, was all too apparent. In her singular struggle to walk from stage right to left, you knew everything you needed to know about Violetta and then dreaded watching it – not because of a vocal problem, but because Ms. Dessay breathed such intense urgency and dramatic power into Violetta’s every move. Death, be it physical or in career-ending, is not to be denied. Rather than finding her performance “sad,” I found it emotionally wrenching and breathtaking. Ms. Dessay’s ability to transfix and transform an audience by way of her profound character studies, acting, and use of vocalism to further the character is nothing short of profound.

Ms. Dessay has a different approach to opera. The singer is an actress. The singer is earnest in her portrayals and the singer is without equal in the acting area. This is where she shines and has shined for years. She brings the character to life. She gives you everything. She gives you something to remember, something upon which to reflect and she makes you clamor for more.

She knows she has only a few years left to sing. She has acknowledged that before in an interview where she said she wanted to portray Violetta towards career end. While both Ms. Dessay and Mr. Dobbs felt compelled to note the deficiency of her voice that day, (perfectionist vs. detractor) she still delivered a Violetta that was remarkable.

I applaud Ms. Dessay for wanting to “learn Russian, learn yoga, and maybe take lessons in clowning” when she goes on sabbatical in 2015. She deserves it. She's given us, her audience, so much. She is looking for different ways to extend herself for personal reasons and, hopefully, for her audiences in perhaps a different arena - film or stage work.

When beloved soprano Beverly Sills retired at the age of 50, she was asked what makes a great opera singer. Ms. Sills replied "Love for what you are doing, and great enthusiasm."

Ms. Dessay has always had that love and enthusiasm. Her audiences too lover her and have the greatest enthusiasm for her work. I hope Ms. Dessay is able to continue forever. She won’t. I hope I shall always feel as grateful to her for bringing to me the joy and beauty of opera as at the end of La Traviata last week. I shall.

May. 08 2012 08:34 PM
H. Rosenberg from Dobbs Ferry, N. Y.

The Saturday broadcast of Traviata showed Dessay in real trouble. A missed high E flat at the end of Act 1 was the least of it. Labored vocalism, gaps in notes, seemingly due to some kind of physical interference, and a lack of power where it was needed. it was not promising for the future. As an admirer of her past work, I was sad by what I heard.

Apr. 15 2012 01:06 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha,l NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

CARUSO in 1908 had nodes on his vocal cords which were successfully removed and, most remarkably, his career flourished exponentially for the next 13 years. However, his aggravating nervousness on stage and in recording sessions prompted him to chain smoke and drink alcoholic beverages to counter his fears. Dr. John Erdmann oif Columbia Presbyterian Hospital was called in to operate on CARUSO ]in his Park Avenue apartment house residence. The problem then was pleurisy. Dr, Erdmann successfully saved CARUSO's life and career with a team of doctors and nurses and oil lamps and mirrors for adequate lighting. This success unfortunately was not followed by the false diagnosis of doctors in NAPOLI, where he died in 1921. No doctor there was prepared to risk their careers with an unsuccessful operation. So, they only provided painkillers. My partner in my Joint recital in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the now named Isaac Stern Auditorium, was the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, the niece of Dr. John Erdmann. I am an opera composer, "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare," and a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute. At my website,, one may download at "Recorded Selections" free, 37 complete selections from the over one hundred I have sung in four three hour long solo concerts in the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, of Carnegie Hall. They are all LIVE performances.

Apr. 03 2012 10:24 AM

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