Rolando Villazon, Royal Festival Hall, London<br/>Hallé / BBC Philharmonic/ Elder, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

A popular voice can be an ex-voice if pushed too far
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The Independent Culture

First the Icarus-like ascent. Then the cancellations, the cyst, the operation, a starring role in From Popstar to Opera Star and immortalisation as a glove puppet on Harry Hill's TV Burp.

Not since Carreras, Domingo and Pavarotti serenaded Rome with "Nessun dorma" in triplicate has a tenor generated so much excitement away from the opera house. The standing ovation at the close of Monday's post-op, post-pop, comeback recital of Handel arias with Paul McCreesh, Lucy Crowe and The Gabrieli Players was a given. People love Rolando Villazon.

Early murmurs of concern were easy to dismiss. Recklessness was what endeared him to us: the uninhibited physicality, the heart-on-sleeve emotion, the irresistible coppery plangeancy. On disc, after his first sabbatical, his full-blooded reading of Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was a revelation. Handel is, however, another matter, especially after surgery. The poetic sensibility remains intact – that highly imaginative, instinctive response to colour, line and text – but Villazon's sound is now clouded by a milky film, the low register crumpled and papery, barely audible, the agility compromised.

It was an odd programme for a comeback tour, with its smattering of subdued tenor arias, a handful of excitable castrato arias (transposed down an octave), two jewel-box numbers from Giulio Cesare from Lucy Crowe, a vibrantly characterised Concerto Grosso in B flat, and Katharina Sprecklesen's poised account of the G minor Oboe Concerto. An aria from Rodelinda was delivered cautiously, with delicate da capo decorations, but two arias from Xerxes were littered with cartoonish gestures, misremembered entries and frayed floridness. In "Figlia mia" (Tamerlano) and "Scherza infida" (Ariodante), there was an alluring flicker of inspiration as Villazon leaned in to the suspensions, intensifying his tone over the smarting strings and dolorous bassoons, but the magic was shortlived. A chaotic encore of "Dopo notte" confirmed that he will have to nurture his voice very carefully indeed if Act III of his career is not to be spent on the sofas of daytime TV.

The Bridgewater Hall saw the debut of a new orchestra last weekend as players from the BBC Philharmonic and the Hallé joined forces under Mark Elder for Mahler's Eighth Symphony. The Hallémonic had a sound of its own – more robust than the refined glow of the Hallé, more disciplined than the BBC Phil's High Romantic swell. And though both orchestras have been on a parallel journey, as part of the same symphonic cycle, minute differences in timbre and attack, sometimes even from the same desk, lent this occasionally sublime, often preposterous work new edginess.

This was the only concert in Manchester's Mahler Cycle not to open with a new commission. Instead, organist Olivier Latry delivered a Messaien-influenced improvisation on the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus". Not for the first time, I wondered if the anonymous monk who first transcribed the plainsong did better than Mahler, whose own setting borders on bombast. Much more than in the Second and Third Symphonies, where poetry and prayer are an organic extension of the score, the orchestra's role in the Eighth Symphony is that of accompanist, subsidiary to the bright chimings of the children's voices (Hallé Youth Choir and Children's Choir), the adult chorus (Hallé Choir and CBSO Chorus), and the eight soloists (including Sarah Connolly and Gerald Finley) whose euphoric cries describe Goethe's glittering host of angels and saints in the second movement. If the fortissimi were dazzling, the suspenseful collective hush of "Alles Vergängliche ..." was breathtaking. Above all, the attention to text was scrupulous.

Next Week:

Anna Picard is all ears as Vadim Repin, Valery Gergiev and the LSO premiere James MacMillan's violin concerto

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