When I spoke recently to Ramón Vargas about his formidable international career, we discussed many of his current operatic roles. One of his firm favorites is Massenet's Werther, a role he describes as being a heady mix of "love, passion, despair, frustration, and happiness." I can't argue with that, but I believe his description also encapsulates to perfection another famous tenor role — Riccardo in Verdi's A Masked Ball.
Riccardo is regarded by many as one of the most challenging tenor roles in the Italian operatic repertory. Due to the opera's dramatic structure, Riccardo is doubtless one of Verdi's most complex and interesting male characters, and the music shows off every facet of his personality.
Vargas is no stranger to HGO, having sung several of his signature roles with the company in the past. Indeed, it was during his performances of Alfredo in Verdi's La traviata in 1999 that he first worked with HGO Music Director Patrick Summers. Possessing a lyric tenor voice of exceptional beauty and quality, Vargas was noted early in his career for his performances of the bel canto roles of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. His strict adherence to the bel canto style of singing has allowed him not only to maintain the beauty and evenness in his voice, but to develop and progress into heavier, dramatic-tenor territory. Today, he is heard in performance at the world's most prestigious opera houses and music festivals, working with conductors and orchestras of the highest caliber, with many of his finest musical interpretations recorded for posterity on CD and DVD.
Exploring every facet and nuance of a role, both musically and dramatically, is of fundamental importance to him, and his desire to be continuously inventive has not been lost on Patrick Summers. "I'm always impressed with his inherent curiosity about everything," said Summers. "Ramón is always interested in new ways of thinking about music he has often performed, and this curiosity extends to every part of his life."
As Vargas matured, so did his voice, and these days opera audiences are more likely to hear him singing heavier tenor repertory such as Verdi's Don Carlo, a role he has performed for Houston Grand Opera, or Rodolfo in Puccini's La bohème. Vargas explains that his transition to more expansive roles tested his belief in himself: "When the role of Rodolfo was offered to me for the first time, there were many people who advised me to stay clear of the part. However, I felt intuitively that my voice had matured to a point where this role was a real possibility." He dug his heels in, took a chance, and found that the role suited him perfectly. Nowadays it would be difficult to imagine his career without this most romantic of roles in his repertoire.
Opera companies around the world pursue him for roles beyond the Italianate repertoire. French repertoire, including Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, is a Vargas staple. More recently, he has decided to sing the title role in Mozart's Idomeneo. In performance, Vargas sings the great aria "Fuor del mar" in its most intricate, vocally florid version. Does singing music of this complexity affect the way he approaches and performs other roles? "My approach to the role of Idomeneo, encompassing the coloratura passages in the aria, is no different from singing the music of Verdi or Massenet," he answers. "I believe firmly in the purity of the sound I make, and the vocal technique that allows me to keep my voice clean and healthy, enabling me to negotiate this type of florid music."
So with his voice maturing, epitomized by his recent successful performances of Rodolfo in Verdi's Luisa Miller in Munich, which roles does he feel he should be singing in the coming years? He is confident that he is now ready to take on some of Verdi's heavier tenor roles: "I am particularly interested in Ernani, Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, and Foresto in Attila, as these roles are dramatically exciting and also beautifully written for the tenor voice."
These new roles are still in the future — what are his signature roles of the present? "There are three roles I particularly love," he says. "Werther, which I have already mentioned, Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore, as I will never abandon the bel canto style of music, and of course, Riccardo in A Masked Ball.
"Riccardo is Verdi's greatest tenor role, its greatness born out of its musical complexity, demanding not only sensitivity, but humanity as well," Vargas says. "I regard the role of Riccardo as a complete role, as it presents me with every vocal challenge imaginable. Verdi demands great lyricism and elegance in Riccardo's Act I music, which must be delivered with due attention to the phrasing. Then as the opera progresses to Act II, and in particular, to the great duet with Amelia — surely one of the greatest love duets in all nineteenth-century Italian opera — Riccardo's music becomes far more dramatic and needs to be projected over a fairly large orchestral accompaniment. With Riccardo's aria in the final act, Verdi marries lyricism and drama, bringing this most incredible of roles to its conclusion."
Ramón Vargas is one of today's most exciting international artists, whose accomplishments attest that he embodies the love, passion, despair, frustration, and happiness necessary to support the all-encompassing role of Riccardo. Says Patrick Summers, "Ramón retains a palpable joy about singing, and he's one of the few tenors today who can approach the great middle-Verdi operas, like A Masked Ball, on their own terms, always respectful of the composer's wishes, but still creative and spontaneous. He is a supportive and gentle colleague, and we are always happy to welcome his return to Houston Grand Opera."