18 Jan 2006


The French city of Nice has this past week been enjoying some wonderful weather and the aptly-named Cote d’Azur has truly lived up to its name.

This was fortunate, as its opera house, built around 1828 in a style reminiscent of a scaled-down Opéra Garnier, has been playing host to many first-time international visitors who have been lured by the mouth-watering prospect of hearing Rolando Villazón, hot young tenor of the moment, in his first “Werther”.

Villazón has already gained some outstanding reviews and praise from the sternest critics around the world for his performances in such works as Rigoletto, Romeo et Juliette, La Traviata and les Contes d’Hoffmann. He is already spoken of as “the next Domingo” — understandable if maybe a mite premature as this stage of his career. He is only 33, and his recent meteoric rise appears to have been sensibly planned and considered. He does indeed relate closely to Domingo, his “artistic father” (his words) who, though he never actually coaches him acts as mentor and friend to the young singer.

Audience reaction in Nice has been ecstatic and loudly vocal — perhaps too much so at the performance this writer attended when one particularly partisan group of Villazón fans in the first balcony had to be remonstrated with by a stern “Respectez la musique!” from another part of the theatre. One imagines Rolando Villazón himself was equally unimpressed. The Nice Opéra audience was obviously deeply impressed and delighted to be hearing this singer, and I wondered how such an elegant and enterprising, but essentially provincial house (with budgets to match) had managed to achieve such a coup. The answer lies in a meeting between Villazón and the producer Paul-Emile Fourny back in 2001 at the Antibes Festival. Fourny happened to remark that he wanted to stage “Werther” as soon as possible in Nice; Villazón replied that he very much wanted to add this role to his repertoire and a deal was made; luckily, I am informed, at a fee that would no longer buy this artist’s time! Of course, the advantage for Villazón is that he has been able to try out an important new role in a smaller house before submitting himself to critical review on the larger stages of the world.

Both the role and this simple but satisfying production suit Villazón perfectly, playing to his strengths and offering him ample scope to display his musical and histrionic abilities. The young Mexican certainly has the ‘physique du role’ — slim, athletic, and an elegant mover on stage, he transmits the kind of emotional vulnerability essential for this tortured young lover who is cruelly denied his dream. Perhaps it is the combination of ringing clarity and the ability to offer every nuance of expression that impressed most. The voice has a thrilling, easy top, and his delicacy and refinement in the role’s many quieter, reflective moments were matched by a most intelligent response to the words. Every line was delivered with complete understanding of, and immersion in, the character. Werther will surely become a most important role for Villazón and with good reason.

Of the other singers, the mezzo Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Charlotte was the most impressive. She has a handsome stage presence and is a sympathetic actress — and once under full control her big, dark voice brought real intensity and power to the emotionally fraught scene in Act 3 where she fully deserved the warm ovations after the “Air des Lettres” and “Air des Larmes”. She also rose magnificently to the demands of the intensely dramatic final scene and was, along with her illustrious partner, intensely moving. Andre Cognet was a forthright Albert and Sophie was sung with quintessential French spirit by Valérie Condoluci. Of the remainder, Jean-Luc Ballestra offered a promising baritone voice and stage presence and Michel Trempont brought his maturity and rich tones to a satisfying portrayal of the Le Bailli.

The conductor was the well-regarded Patrick Fournillier who was obviously firmly in control of the orchestra and in absolute sympathy with his singers. His shaping of the Entr’acte between Acts Three and Four was particularly dramatic and appealing. The choir of children was perfectly schooled and musically correct, yet also natural — not easy to achieve. The production, sets and lighting were of a suitably elegant nature, if not presenting the audience with any great visual challenges or delights. The final scene was slightly reduced in impact by an upstage procession of the children and minor characters — an interesting device but essentially misconceived in this writer’s opinion as all concentration should surely be on the dying lovers, with the outside world kept only to an aural presence.

However, minor distractions apart, this was a most exciting and successful production of Massenet’s great work and one in which the visiting star, supporting singers and musicians rose admirably to the occasion. Nice Opéra are to be congratulated — let us hope we see more such enterprising events presented here.

© Sue Loder 2006

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