Rolando Villazón in Lyon
Among his many other non-singing pursuits, Rolando Villazón has become the latest active singer to try his hand at opera directing, which must be one of the only professions in the world these days for which no qualification other than a recognizable name is required. His choice of Massenet’s Werther—or opera de lyon’s choice of him—was interesting because he is still scheduled to sing the title role at Covent Garden next month. The first night on January 24 attracted unusual Europe-wide press attention, some of it sympathetic, some rather more sceptical.
By recent singer-turned-director standards, Villazón’s Werther is by no means a shameful piece of work, although he was badly let down by his designers (or by their budget). François Séguin’s flimsy sets and Thibault Vancraenenbroek’s garishly colour-coded period-ish costumes evoked none of the subtle poetry of Massenet’s score, which was ably if not entirely idiomatically conducted by Leopold Hager. Villazón’s early career as a member of Daniel Barenboim’s Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin was evidenced in a couple of jarring Regietheater tics. Although he played the action more-or-less straight, he couldn’t resist introducing a quartet of clowns who, like the Harlequinade in Ariadne auf Naxos, were almost omnipresent and rarely welcome. Coincidentally, it seemed, they sang the roles of Johann (Nabil Suliman), Schmidt (Jean-Paul Fouchécourt), Kätchen (Marie-Laure Cloarec) and Bruhlmann (Gregory Escolin). Werther and Charlotte were saddled with child-doppelgängers—yes, that old 1980s chestnut—neither of whom added much to the action.
At least Villazón (with help from his assistant, Didier Kersten) was able to draw plausible dramatic performances. Arturo Chacón-Cruz, Villazón’s younger compatriot and another Domingo protégé, lacks the confidence Villazón displayed in his debut as Werther six years ago. Under pressure his intonation suffered, and he sounded tired towards the end, but the basic sound of his tenor—lighter, brighter than Villazón’s—is hugely appealing: plangent, Italianate, impassioned. He was at a slight disadvantage among an all-francophone supporting cast, who sang with clarity and verve: a rare pleasure indeed. They included Karine Deshayes’s idiomatic, light-voiced Charlotte, Anne-Catherine Gillet’s skittish Sophie and Alain Vernhes’s classic Bailli (which he sings at the ROH in May). If only there were a young, native French-speaking Werther to match them.