Werther, Opéra National de Lyon, Lyon, France
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool

Tenor turned TV presenter turned director, the extraordinary Rolando Villazon continues his conquest of opera

Youth and folly are the predominant themes in Rolando Villazon's debut production of Werther for Opéra National de Lyon.

Just a few months before his Covent Garden comeback in the title role of the same work, the Mexican tenor and television presenter has turned director in a staging that could be read as autobiography or catharsis. Kitted out like a deluxe convalescent ward in a children's hospital, littered with clowns, balloons and throw-cushions, François Séguin's easy-clean white melamine set pays tribute to Willy Decker's 2005 Salzburg staging of La Traviata with a clock that counts the hours to Werther's crack-up. Love is madness here, duty a cage, self-expression a hazardous shattering of social conventions.

Returning to the source material, Villazon emphasises the extreme youth of Goethe's characters, presenting Werther's suicide less as an act of gross selfishness than a reaction to emotion too great to bear. Sadly, the discord between Séguin's clinical designs and Massenet's dove-grey and amethyst orchestration is violent, while the antics of mimes and clowns are an intrusive distraction. Lest we miss the symbolism of the cage, Werther's naivety is underlined by the presence of a mini-me, as child-actor Victor Fleury shadows Arturo Chacon-Cruz's every gesture. A convincing 23-year-old on stage, Chacon-Cruz has a steadier presence than his famous director and compatriot, his high-notes blazing with ardour if not yet quite woven in to the rest of his voice.

Where most singer-directors focus on the role they have performed themselves, Villazon concentrates on Charlotte (Karine Deshayes) and Sophie (Anne-Catherine Gillet). In the sisters' hyper-sensitive, hyper-active candour – the elder one struggling to contain herself, the younger one baffled by the need for containment – we see an echo of Villazon's Salzburg Alfredo, the lover who vibrates with vulnerability. Accompanied with sensitivity by conductor Leopold Hager, the two deliver their arias with the intimacy of chansons. Sung from within the cage, with alto saxophone curling through night-scented strings like smoke from a Turkish cigarette, Charlotte's Air des larmes prefigures Werther's suicide, her desperation palpable. The symbolism may be heavy, the clowns distracting, the mode too obviously cathartic, but for this moment of empathy alone, the latest chapter in Villazon's career is worth catching.

So from folly to reason, and two works suspended on the steady heartbeat of the timpani. Ilya Gringolts' fresh, sweet tone sang birdlike and elated in Vassily Petrenko's beautifully poised and balanced reading of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. If the purity of sound was impressive, so too was the fervour and invention in Gringolts' cadenzas, a dazzling amalgam of historically informed bowing and extemporising. Woodwind and horns gleam in the acoustic of Liverpool's Philharmonic Hall, yet the orchestral balance is easy and suave, the playing uninhibited and engaged. Leaning in to the strings, Petrenko intensified the sound for Brahms's First Symphony, its lacerating opening movement sharply accented with the throaty attack of the violas, its Andante pricked-through with bubbling cross-rhythms and the honeyed violin solos of leader James Clark. Petrenko uses rubato sparingly, just a pop here and there in the fragrant tangle of the Allegretto, before the great Romantic sigh and radiant Classical hymn of the final movement. There was earth here and heaven too, food for the heart and the mind.

'Werther': to 7 Feb (+33 [0]826 305 325)

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