Rolando Villazon and The Gabrieli Players at the Royal Festival Hall

I suppose I should have known. Within two chords the continuo player’s music stand had collapsed with a loud thud. As with the falling picture in Der Freischütz, the misbehaving inanimate object was a portent of dark times to come.

This concert marked Rolando Villazon’s return to London for the first time in a live concert since the operation on his vocal chords. Of course he had been in London previously where his collusion in a somewhat less artistically exalted event had caused pages of comment in the papers and the online forums.

Now I would customarily applaud artists stepping outside their accustomed comfort zones to explore repertoire not usually associated with their career. Villazon’s Händel album for Deutsche Gramophon was not unsuccessful but it was recorded before his latest vocal crisis and there is a difference between the safe confines of a studio and the Händel-unfriendly Festival Hall

The Gabrieli Players having opened with “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon, Villazon entered to prolonged and vociferous applause. He chose to commence with Grimoaldo’s aria from the final act of Rodelinda, possibly because it presents no huge challenges compared with some of the warhorses to come. However one was immediately aware that the voice sounded a shadow of its former self with only the middle tenor range secure. One charitably hoped that it was merely in need of warming up.

However his next excerpt “Più che penso” from Serse confirmed my worst fears. Slithering about on the runs, low notes which were growled pitchlessly, desperately semaphoring and mugging and closing with a comedy “mad” pose this was an excruciatingly embarrassing performance.

It was a blessed relief to welcome Lucy Crowe to the platform to demonstrate how Händel should be sung. Both her arias were near exemplary with a dazzling “Da tempeste” from Giulio Cesare giving especial pleasure.

Villazon’s other excerpts were not quite on a par with the first Serse aria but he continued to sound uncomfortable and the voice simply cannot accomplish what it needs to in order to do justice to this repertoire. Surprisingly “Scherza Infida”, which I was dreading by this time, gave more pleasure than the fast decorated repertoire and one could hear some of the well remembered vocal quality returning. Bajazet’s death scene suffered from a lack of context and I doubt any performer could make much of it in a concert setting. It requires a level of tearing passion to tatters which is only appropriate in the opera house.

The evening closed with two encores – The first part of “Ombra mai fu” without development or da capo and “Dopo notte” from Ariodante about which I would prefer not to comment. As I left many of the audience were standing and not, apparently, merely to retrieve their coats.

It gives me no pleasure to write such a negative review of an artist whom I have previously admired greatly. However I doubt that, even had he been on optimum form, Villazon is suited to this fach. I wish him a speedy return both to full vocal health and more congenial repertoire.

- Sebastian Petit