Ramón Vargas: Verdi Arias
Arias from Ernani, I due Foscari, Alzira, Attila, Macbeth, I masnadieri, JÈrusalem, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Les vÍpres siciliennes, and Falstaff.
Ramón Vargas, tenor (with James Anderson, tenor, and Annegher Stumphius, soprano). M”nnerchor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Müncher Ründfunkorchester, Edoardo Müller, conductor.

RCA  79603 (F) (DDD) TT: 72:44.

Ramón Vargas, one of today's leading exponents of the bel canto tenor repertoire, has in recent years begun to turn his attentions to operas of Giuseppe Verdi. Vargas has already performed Fenton (Falstaff), the Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Alfredo (La traviata), Riccardo (Un ballo in maschera), and the title role in Don Carlo.

In this new recital from RCA Vargas offers a wide-ranging selection of Verdi repertoire, including both familiar and less frequently performed fare. Well-known selections from Macbeth, Luisa Miller, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and Falstaff are set alongside alternative arias that Verdi composed for subsequent performances of Ernani, Attila  and Les vÍpres siciliennes.

A few reservations aside, I found this recital to be an admirable success. Ramón Vargas certainly possesses many of the qualities necessary to do justice to Verdi's extremely challenging music. The Mexican tenor's clear and idiomatic diction—both in Italian and French—is aligned with a flowing legato line. His bright, attractive tenor moves easily and with authority from register to register, and throughout a wide variety of dynamics. The high Cs (featured in the JÈrusalem and Il trovatore excerpts) evidence plenty of authority and ping. And unlike many of the tenors who have essayed this repertoire, Vargas possesses a secure trill that serves him well in Manrico'’s aria from Il trovatore.

Vargas also exhibits a keen understanding of the delicate balance between bel canto elegance and fiery romanticism that is at the heart of Verdi style. The tenor's superb breath control allows him to spin long and supple phrases that are worthy of some of the finest Verdi tenors of the past. There are also imaginative and individual touches, such as the lovely trill at the conclusion of the Duke's "Parmi veder le lagrime," and his ornamentation of the second verse of the ensuing cabaletta, "Possente amor." And while Vargas may not offer much in the way of unique dramatic insight, he is always keenly involved with the music and text.

I do question whether Ramón Vargas possesses the kind of vocal heft necessary to sing the Verdi lirico-spinto and spinto repertoire in larger opera houses. But of course vocal weight and volume matter far less in the recording studio where balances are controlled and microphones placed as close to the singer as necessary.

On the other hand, the issue of a singer's basic vocal timbre is one that is of importance both in the context of studio and "live" performances. And herein lies my greatest reservation about Vargas's qualifications as a Verdi tenor. Carlo Bergonzi once remarked that great Verdi singers have voices that radiate "the color of blood." Bergonzi was referring to a vocal quality that combines vibrancy with a rich-hued timbre. "The color of blood" is something that Bergonzi's voice certainly possessed in abundance. Vargas's timbre, on the other hand, is far brighter. That certainly poses little or no problems when performing Alfredo, the Duke, or Fenton—in fact, such a youthful sound is an asset in those parts. On the other hand, this vocal quality does limit Vargas's effectiveness in the more "brooding" Verdi roles, which are represented in all but two of the twelve excerpts on this new CD.

Perhaps you will not share my views regarding the type of voice that is required a Verdi tenor. If so, I can recommend this CD to you without reservation. For the rest I still think this recital is worthy of your consideration. I will certainly return to it quite frequently to enjoy one of the shining lights among current opera singers.

Edoardo Müller, a fine opera conductor, and the Munich Radio Orchestra provide excellent accompaniment. The sound is first-rate, with admirable dynamic range, clarity, richness, and balance between soloist and orchestra. The booklet includes an essay on Verdi and the featured operas, as well as texts and translations in German, English, and French.

K.M.(June 2001)