Would he or wouldn’t he? That was the question on everybody’s lips after the past couple of years when Rolando Villazón has cancelled so many performances at opera houses around the world – not to mention the supplementary question as to whether he would make it to the end.
The answers were, happily, yes and yes. It is perhaps surprising that he should make his Covent Garden comeback in the role of Massenet’s lovelorn, anxiety-racked Werther, which stretched his voice to its limit and beyond even in the good times, but Villazón’s performances have never been about taking life easy.
The voice sometimes sounded opaque in the middle range and there is nothing at all left in reserve at the big moments. But where some singers in his position might simply have spent their time pushing for volume, Villazón took care to spin long, expressive phrases, lighting upon words and colours that created a living musical portrait. This was Werther the poet at work and there was hardly a corner of the character’s soul that he left unexplored.
By his side the rest was relatively plain. Sophie Koch’s Charlotte is ideally young and attractive and sings well with the right warmth of voice. Audun Iversen brought vocal eloquence to bourgeois Albert, and Eri Nakamura more spirit than usual to irritating Sophie, with Alain Vernhes adding a fine cameo as the Bailli. Benoît Jacquot’s production is nothing short of dreadful but the outstanding conducting of Antonio Pappano, working with a Royal Opera orchestra on top form, made sure that, as music at least, Massenet’s opera blazed vividly into life.