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RECORD KEEPING | Nézet-Séguin’s “Duets” Is Beautiful And Great, But… We’re Not Surprised

DUETS. Music by Bizet, Gounod, Boito, Donizetti, Verdi, etc. Rolando Villazón, tenor. Idar Abdrazakov, bass. Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal/Yannick Nézet-Séguin. DG. Total Time: 61:22.

Rolando Villazón first met Yannick Nézet-Séguin when they were working on a new production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette at the Salzburg festival in 2008. From there they developed an ongoing project to record all the major Mozart operas for Deutsche Grammophon, with casts built around Villazón in the tenor roles. With four operas already released and several more to come, this project has turned out to be a major success.

Villazón and Ildar Abdrazakov first crossed paths in 2009 when they worked together at the Met in Lucia di Lammermoor. Here they are together on a new album of duets. Of course, for Canadian music-lovers, this CD provides another cause for celebration, as it is the first recording by the Orchestre Métropolitain on a major international label, and as such, an indication of Nézet-Séguin’s extraordinary loyalty to the orchestra that gave him his first opportunity to conduct. While Nézet-Séguin has ascended to the music directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra and will soon begin his tenure in the same role at the Metropolitan Opera, he continues to devote a good deal of time to Montreal. He may, in fact, be increasing his work with the Orchestre Métropolitain. Just last week he led the orchestra on its first-ever European tour.

This CD begins with the most famous of all tenor/baritone duets, the duet from Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers. Villazón contributes a thoughtful rendering of the opening bars, and later the kind of emotional intensity that has made him a star, not to mention some thrilling high notes that are fearlessly approached and dead on in tune. Abdrazakov is a solid partner and Nézet-Séguin, and his orchestra provides a totally committed accompaniment.

The go-to reference for this piece has always been the 1951 recording by Jussi Björling and Robert Merrill; it remains a glorious version, especially for Björling’s incomparable sound and phrasing, captured in his prime, in spite of the fact that it leaves out the middle section of the duet. But this new rendition by Villazón and Abdrazakov is very much a contender.

Although Villazón has had more than his share of vocal problems in the last few years, on this album he is in fine form, very much in his element in duets from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore and impressive too in a duet from Act I of Gounod’s Faust. Perhaps the most beautiful blending of voices is in the duet from Act I of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

The most dramatic item on the CD is the Pact Scene from Act I of Boito’s Mefistofele. Abdrazakov makes a chillingly menacing Mephistopheles and Villazón a sonorous Faust. Together, with Nézet-Séguin making the most of Boito’s inventive orchestration, the music comes alive as I have rarely heard it.

The CD concludes with duet arrangements of popular folk songs from each of the singer’s native countries. First comes “Granada” from Villazón’s Mexico in a colourful version by Julian Reynolds, and then from the same arranger a lovely rendering of the Russian favourite “Ochi Chernye” (Dark Eyes).

Wonderful singing from beginning to end on this new CD, with conductor and orchestra very much equal partners. Above all, this is music-making that is never routine and never dull. I listened to this CD from beginning to end and then couldn’t wait to start over and listen to it all again. This recording is a triumph for all concerned.

Orchestre Métropolitain and Nézet-Séguin have almost completed a cycle of all the Bruckner symphonies for ATMA. On the strength of this CD, might I suggest that the orchestra has earned the right to moonlight now and again for DG.

DUETS is available at amazon.ca and iTunes.

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