“I like to be challenged. In fact I need challenges.” So says Rolando Villazón in the booklet notes for this album. The singer’s self-imposed challenge in this case was to unearth little-known repertoire for his first solo recital for Deutsche Grammophon. Working closely with the DG specialists, he dug out a number of rare gems of the tenor literature from the archives. The album title comes from an operatic favourite, the romanza “Cielo e mar” (“Sky and sea”) from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, which Villazón had worked on in his student days. But the rest of the tracklist reflects his desire to introduce listeners to music he felt had fallen into undeserved neglect. He discussed his motivation in an interview he gave during a break in the recording sessions:
The cielo e mar cover shot captures Villazon’s sense of adventure. He’s pictured by the sea, arms spread wide, relishing the feel of wind and water – lost in the joy of the moment. This was just one of many photos taken on the day by Berlin-based photographer Felix Broede, whose artist portraits had already formed the basis of various other DG album covers.
The Villazón assignment, however, did not go entirely to plan. The original idea had been to use a free day during the recording sessions in Milan to travel to the Italian Riviera – the perfect setting for a “sky and sea” theme. But, on that particular day in March 2007, although the sun was shining, the wind was bitter. Rather than run the risk of the singer catching cold and the orchestral sessions being derailed, with all the logistical implications that would entail, the decision was made to postpone the shoot. It was rescheduled for the warmer days of summer, this time in Barcelona.
Fast-forward to June, and a small team arrives on the Catalan coast. Here, Villazón was initially photographed all in white on the tree-covered dunes.
One change of outfit later, they moved down to a vast, deserted beach. Now the sea was the stage, with a backdrop of looming stormclouds. Villazón was instantly seduced by the power of the natural elements. As he strolled along the waterline, he ventured further and further into the sea, began to sing and dance, and finally leapt into the waves and let himself be drenched by the spray – without a thought for his smart designer suit!
It’s all part of his need for and love of a challenge. Tenors don’t have to be photographed on stage in white tie and tails, they can relax and enjoy themselves like kids on the beach. The fact that Villazón presents not just his thoughtful and dramatic side but also this sparkling, carefree aspect of his personality (both musically and visually) is what makes this DG debut so special. cielo e mar introduces us to an artist capable of expressing every emotion under the sun.