Rolando Villazon / Lucy Crowe / Gabrieli Consort / Paul McCreesh - Royal Festival Hall, 3 May 2010
Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (Solomon) Fatto inferno (Rodelinda) Pastorello d'un povero armento (Rodelinda) Concerto grosso in B flat, Op.3 No.2 Più che penso alle fiamme del core (Serse) Se pietà di me non senti (Giulio Cesare) Crude furie degl' orridi (Serse) Scherza infida (Ariodante) Oboe Concerto No.3 in G minor Ciel e terra (Tamerlano) Da tempeste (Giulio Cesare) Bajazet death scene, Oh, perme lieto - Fremi, minaccia, Figlia mia, Tu, spietato (Tamerlano) Encores: Ombra mai fu, Doppo notte
It's hard to know what to think, let alone to say, about this bizarre evening. And as a longtime admirer of Rolando Villazon, it gives me no pleasure to write what I'm about to. And no, I'm not just talking about the village-idiot haircut.
Despite his fame, and the boost of Popstar to Operastar, the Royal Festival Hall was only two thirds full. £75 tickets can't have helped. But the coupling of Rolando's atylistically inappropriate verismo voice with an all-Handel programme seemed calculated to repel fairweather Villazon fans and Handel lovers alike. It proved as strange in practice as it sounds on the page. Even his recent Handel CD didn't quite prepare me.
There's no reason Handel should always be tackled in the cold-blooded, colourless style favoured by the dourest baroque specialists of course. Artists like David Daniels, Joyce DiDonato and Cecilia Bartoli have proved that. But it's a style that demands discipline as well as heart-on-sleeve expressivity. Repeating the same lines ten times in a row soon sounds tired if they're not carefully nuanced. Rolando's full-on, impassioned delivery had all the intensity and none of the complexity, as if he was marooned in the last scene of Pagliacci all night.
The technical side too revealed more weaknesses than strengths. The stately pace of Scherza infida allowed him to colour and sustain its long, arching lines and really savour the text. It was by far his best moment, a glimpse of his great musicality and talent.
But the rest of his selections were coloratura-packed, and his voice has neither the easy agility nor the range to cope. He seemed to be fighting the music and coming out second. Fioritura was chugged, intonation was often suspect, high notes were yelped and low notes simply disappeared. It was clear he understands the technical demands, but his voice just wouldn't go where he wanted to take it. Only Rolando's enormous warmth and enthusiasm salvaged his performance.
Halfway through Crude furie he lost his place completely, and instead of flannelling his way back in (nobody would have noticed), forced Paul McCreesh to start over. That sort of thing may be cute when Rufus Wainwright does it, but in a recital like this it's just more distressing proof of how little empathy Villazon has with this music.
Worst of all, he was shown up by his guest (unintentionally of course). Lucy Crowe handled a couple of Cleopatra's arias from Giulio Cesare with all the bright radiant tone and effortless facility they deserve.
The most frustrating thing about the whole evening is that fundamentally, there seems to be little if anything wrong with Rolando's voice. The tone is less velvety than it used to be, but he's clearly recovered well from his recent surgery, and in the right repertoire, I'm sure his results would be very different. Not that the many diehard fans were disappointed though - amazingly there was a standing ovation.
A not-very-revealing 45 minute interview with Radio 3's Music Matters is available on the iPlayer until Saturday.
Here's Scherza infida from 2008: