In 2011, tenor Rolando Villazón instigated a project to record all the mature Mozart operas, complete with A-list casts, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin at a concert in Baden-Baden. Five operas down, the series is a curious one, worth relishing on some counts but also frustratingly uneven.
Nézet-Séguin draws a performance from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe that nods to the historically informed movement and old-school, big-orchestra Mozart without quite deciding where in between it wants to stand. He and the excellent RIAS Kammerchor make light work of the crowd scenes, but among much propulsive and shapely playing there are episodes that sound heavy-handed. An example is Sesto’s pivotal aria Parto, Parto: the first section is excessively slow, so that Joyce DiDonato – drawing out each phrase dauntlessly – can convey the character’s turmoil but not his resolve; then the second section hurtles onwards as fast as she or anyone else could possibly sing it.
Extreme tempos notwithstanding, DiDonato’s Sesto is vibrant and memorable. So too is Marina Rebeka’s Vitellia, a larger-than-life performance that right away establishes the volatility of the character. Her top notes are searing and her low notes are fierce, which fits the role. The smaller roles are impeccably cast, with Regina Mühlemann dewdrop-sweet as Servilia, Tara Erraught making much of Annio, and Adam Plachetka as the commander Publio, who sounds rather more secure than his emperor.
The main idiosyncrasy is Villazón – and in this opera, where the tenor has the title role, that’s not easy to gloss over. Some listeners will find his warm, passionate portrayal of the merciful emperor an antidote to the generic, antiseptic style in which Mozart can be played today; others will balk at his expressive tuning, and wonder why he sounds as if he is limbering up for Nessun Dorma. This month, he and Nézet-Séguin will return to Baden-Baden for Die Zauberflöte; Villazón will go full Domingo and sing the baritone role of Papageno.
This week’s other picks
Also out this week are recitals from two pillars of the UK opera scene. On Come to Me in My Dreams, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton bring insight to a lovely collection of songs by composers connected with London’s Royal College of Music, including two previously unrecorded ones by Britten. Meanwhile, baritone Christopher Purves and Arcangelo have released a sequel to their 2012 Handel disc, Finest Arias for Base Voice, reminding us that Purves is not only an outstanding singing actor but also an outstanding singer.