Star Mexican tenor returns to mixed reviews

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - It was billed as his comeback, the biggest test so far for star Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon since an extended break due to burnout.

Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon sings during the German TV show "Wetten dass...?" (Bet that) in Erfurt March 29, 2008. REUTERS/Jens Meyer/Pool

After Friday’s eagerly-anticipated new production of Verdi’s monumental Spanish court drama “Don Carlo” at the Royal Opera House in London, the jury was out: good but not great.

On Monday, critics were generally warm in their praise of the five-act, Italian version of the work, which tells the story of 16th century palace intrigue, religious repression, betrayal and unrequited love in the court of King Philip II of Spain.

Based on a play by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, “Don Carlo” was a major undertaking for Villazon, who took time out from singing in the second half of 2007 citing exhaustion. He has performed mainly concerts since.

“I’m very happy ... I’m happy it’s over,” the 36-year-old told Reuters backstage after Friday’s performance, which ran to three-and-a-half hours not including two intervals.

“It is true that it was the first big premiere since the break. As much as I tried not to think about it, it was even more stressful (than normal),” he added.

Villazon, one of the world’s most sought after tenors who has forged a successful singing partnership with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, has spoken of the difference between constructive nerves before a performance and destructive fear.

“I think it was high-intensity nerves, especially towards the second half,” he said, describing his feelings before going on stage on Friday.


Applause on the night for Villazon and Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, who played Elizabeth of Valois, was warm and loud, but several critics were less generous.

“The casting of Rolando Villazon in the title role attracted much of the advance publicity, but the glitzy tenor is the only disappointment,” wrote Andrew Clements in the Guardian newspaper in a review that rated the opera at four stars out of five.

“Some of his singing is outstanding but there’s never a hint of emotional engagement and ... Villazon reduces the character of Carlo to little more than a stroppy, lovesick adolescent.”

Richard Morrison of the Times, giving “Don Carlo” three stars, said the production started well then fizzled out.

“What goes wrong? Very obviously, two of the central characters,” he said.

“Villazon and his adored Elizabeth ... perform stunningly in their heart stopping Act I meeting ... They have chemistry, ardor, spirit, sensuality. That, however, turns out to be the zenith of their evening.”

He argued that Villazon’s voice sounded “more and more pressurized” as the evening progressed, while George Hall of The Stage arts weekly added:

“All the main performers distinguish themselves, though Rolando Villazon’s Carlos sometimes sounds stressed and even out of tune. It’s a role too big for his lyric tenor.”

Villazon performs in “Romeo et Juliette” at the Salzburg Festival in August, in “Eugene Onegin” in October (Berlin) and “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” in November and December (London).

He is expected to reunite with Netrebko in “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York next year.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Patricia Reaney