Opera Arias / Ramon Vargas

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OPERA ARIAS Ramón Vargas (ten); Riccardo Frizza, cond; Budapest SO CAPRICCIO 5165 (48:01)

PONCHIELLI La Gioconda: Cielo e mar. VERDI Simon Boccanegra: O inferno!…Cielo pietoso. I due Foscari: Notte!…perpetua notte. BOITO Mefistofele: Dai campi, dai prati; Giunto sul passo estremo. PUCCINI Tosca: Recondita armonia; E lucevan le stelle. Turandot: Nessun dorma. CILEA L’Arlesiana: E la solita storia. GOUNOD Faust: Salut, demeure. MASSENET Werther: Pourquoi ma réveiller. BERLIOZ La damnation de Faust: Nature immense!

In my review of Piotr Becza?a’s Verdi aria recital in this issue, I complained not only of his tone, which tends to be on the wiry side, but moreso of his tendency to belt everything without subtlety or interpretation, often sounding as if he were at the end of his tether. One encounters no such problems with Ramón Vargas who, as I’ve said in the past, is the Jussi Björling of the modern day. Like Björling, Vargas has an interesting and immediately recognizable voice, superb in its placement, breath control, and highly musical in phrasing; and, even more than Björling, Vargas is a consistently interesting and intense interpreter. Yes, there are Björling performances that are indeed beyond compare: the 1949 Met Manon Lescaut, his studio recording of Pagliacci, and the 1959 Met Cavalleria rusticana, but in so many others he is just a gorgeous voice singing beautifully. Vargas is, and remains, a more consistent interpreter.

That being said, it was evident to me when listening to this CD that some of these arias were recorded on different days from the rest of the album, particularly the opening “Cielo e mar.” Here, although Vargas does not sound at the end of his tether, he does show some evidence of vocal strain. The voice simply didn’t come out well that day, and thus in this aria he compares more to the Björling of 1957-60, when vocal strain came and went in his voice due to increasing heart problems. Vargas sounds similarly a bit rough in “Recondita armonia” from Tosca. But he is simply magnificent, refulgent in tone and interesting in his phrasing, throughout the Simon Boccanegra aria, and his performances of the two Mefistofele arias are even more sensitively phrased than Caruso’s. “E la solita storia” is an extraordinarily difficult aria to sing, not because of its demands on vocal range as much as for its demands on sensitivity of expression. Björling, to me, got a D+ for his recorded performance of it (he even stuck in an extra belted high note at the end), whereas young Nicolai Gedda gets an A- (not quite as firm of voice as he later became, but sensitive to text throughout). Vargas gets a C+ from me, better than Björling but not nearly as fine as Gedda: The soft phrasing at the end of the second verse is superb, and redeems his earlier loudness.

Another difficult aria to pull off is “Salut, demeure.” I’ve heard hundreds of uninteresting versions (including all of Björling’s, but also Gedda’s, Caruso’s, etc.) and only two really great ones, Georges Thill and Jerry Hadley. Again, Vargas falls somewhere in between these two extremes. He does try to bring some interpretive qualities to the text, but is not as consistently sensitive or fascinating as Thill or Hadley. I did not appreciate the full-voiced, belted high C, although he does round off the aria with some exquisite soft singing. “E lucevan le stelle” gets its usual over-wrought interpretation here. On the other hand, Werther’s “Pourquoi ma réveiller” is sung with both superbly controlled drama and superb phrasing, an excellent version. I was most curious to hear Vargas sing “Nature immense!,” an aria that I would not personally associate with him. Vargas brings his own brand of Latin temperament to this quintessentially French aria, but being Berlioz, this is not at all out of place. I liked it very much, so much so that I wish he would record the whole piece, perhaps with a mezzo of the quality of Susan Graham.

The tenor aria from Verdi’s early opera I due Foscari is obscure enough that, unless you are a fan of the opera, you probably won’t know it well, but Vargas invests it with middle-period-Verdian intensity and thus makes something interesting out of it. He wraps up his recital with the omnipresent (nowadays) “Nessun dorma,” and here he even surpasses Björling in his sensitivity of phrasing, rounding off many phrases with exquisite diminuendos, and never sounds strained beyond his limits in the climaxes.

Despite my enthusiasm for Vargas in general, I cannot say much in favor of Frizza’s conducting. His phrasing was, to my ears, consistently plodding, lumpy, and uninteresting. Compared to him, Nils Grevillius (the conductor on most of Björling’s 78-rpm recordings) was Toscanini. Nevertheless, I hope I have made it clear that in general I am very enthusiastic about this recital.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: C5165

  • UPC: 845221051659

  • Label: Capriccio

  • Composer: Amilcare Ponchielli, Arrigo Boito, Charles Gounod, Francesco Cilèa, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, Hector Berlioz, Jules Massenet

  • Conductor: Riccardo Frizza

  • Performer: Ramón Vargas