Werther - Royal Opera House, 5 May 2011
Rolando Villazon made what I think it's fair to call a triumphant post-surgery return to Covent Garden tonight. In the title role of Werther, he displayed no worrying strain or cracks. He once described his voice as a horse that wanted to be ridden by a man - well tonight it was a perfectly-schooled prize dressage pony, with a glossy sheen.
The admirable control came of course with a price. There's some loss of brightness throughout the range, with the result that his sound, which was never fundamentally large anyway, failed to cut through and carry with the power of earlier years. A sometimes bottled tone hinted at capacities kept under leash. Gone too was the reckless bravado that hinted anything might happen. Probably sensing that he was under acute observation, Rolando measured carefully how much he gave, never quite emptying his reserves.
In all, I heard a still-great voice, managed - for perhaps the first time ever - in a thoroughly mature and professional manner. But in the process some of the do-or-die individuality that made Rolando a star in the first place has seeped away. Can he bring it back without risking his instrument again? We'll have to see.
Voice aside, he's retained that appealing blend of utter sincerity and pure ham, and it found a fitting home in the role of the maudlin young poet. Benoît Jacquot's bland production (straight from the shitty French bourgeois crowd-pandering school of traditionalist kitsch) needs someone like Rolando to rescue it from bosom-heaving à la carte gesticulation and bring it to life (not to mention distract from an irritating tinkling fountain - where was Pappano when that was signed off on, I wonder?)
Musically however, this production is superb. When Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra are firing on all cylinders, as they were tonight, there's not another opera orchestra in the world that can match them. No matter that Massenet's score isn't the most profound or inventive or his characters are so brittly French. Pappano rode the emotional undercurrents, the music ebbed and swelled. A couple of times he got so carried away he failed to stem voice-covering volumes, but it hardly mattered. Listen to anything recent at the Met (if you have the opportunity) and you'll realise just how lucky we are with Covent Garden's current constellation.
Sophie Koch did her saintly best as the priggish and unsympathetic Charlotte, and the rest of the beautifully-matched cast included Eri Nakamura as Sophie, Alain Vernhes as Le Bailli and Audun Iversen as Albert. But it was Rolando's evening, and I can only assume that, away from the judgemental glare of the first night audience, he'll grow even more into the role as the run goes on.
Curtain call photos, below: intermezzo.typepad.com