Ramón Vargas: "Opera Arias"
By Berlioz, Boito, Cilèa, Gounod, Massenet, Puccini and Verdi. Budapest Symphony Orchestra, Frizza. Texts and translations. Capriccio C5165
Tenor Ramón Vargas has been a Met stalwart for more than two decades, and he has been so reliable a performer over that whole period that it might be easy to overlook just how good he really is. The present CD serves as a bracing reminder. Each of its twelve arias is a demonstration of Vargas's musicality, his attention to line and, above all, the brilliant upper range of his voice. Vargas's top may not be huge, but it's marvelously clear and well projected, with the "ping" that make a voice reverberate against the walls of an opera-house auditorium.
This is no bantamweight Rossinian: for a singer of Vargas's lirico-spinto ilk to have such effortless access to the notes above the staff is both a gift and an accomplishment. The second stanza of "E lucevan le stelle" hits the voice right at its sweet spot: the sound itself evokes Cavaradossi's ardent nature. High passages that can lead some tenors to the outer reaches of their capabilities find Vargas completely within his comfort zone. The declamatory opening of Gabriele's Act II scenafrom Simon Boccanegra is here not a rant but real music, the line knit so tightly it could be a bel canto cantabile. The Fausts of three different composers all benefit from Vargas's ease on high. He reaches the top C in Gounod's "Salut, demeure" without grandstanding or preparation: the note emerges as the logical capstone of the whole phrase. Boito's "Dai campi, dai prati" begins on an F, smack-dab in the middle of the passaggio; Vargas sings the phrase as if the tessitura were the most natural thing in the world. And the voice's placement makes him a natural proponent of Berlioz's treacherously high-flying Faust, here represented by "Nature immense."
Some problems do crop up. The close-in miking brings out a guttural, pressured quality in the voice that I have not picked up in live performance; this is especially apparent in "Cielo e mar," the aria that opens the recital. Vargas has some trouble tapering his sound down to a piano at the end of the first stanza of Federico's lament from L'Arlesiana. But a similar spot in Werther's "Pourquoi me réveiller" elicits a shimmering half-voice. The CD booklet includes a touching interview in which Vargas discusses the closing selection, "Nessun dorma," admitting that he recorded the aria "for pleasure" and would never undertake Calàf onstage: "I want to stand sovereignly above a role." Sure enough, this is the one spot that finds him at the very outer limit of his resources — but his pleasure is nonetheless palpable.
Conductor Riccardo Frizza lends flexible, finely gauged support to Vargas's singing and draws solid, dark tone from the Budapest Symphony Orchestra.
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