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Recordings

Castradiva
16 Jan 2008

Castradiva

“Her fioritura is priceless, breathtaking, and effortless.”

Castradiva — Castrati Arias by Handel and Gluck

Buddug Verona James (mezzo-soprano), Clare Salaman (violin), Jane Norman (violin), Richard Boothby (viola da gamba), Sophia McKenna (oboe), Rosina Ahmad (bassoon), Andrew Wilson-Dickson (harpsichord). Directed and arranged by Andrew Wilson-Dickson.

Fflach CD237L [CD]

£8.99  Click to buy

A modern way to embed diverse operatic arias into a unified storyline, Buddug Verona James is brilliant as Pedrolino, il magnifico. Il primo castrato del mondo! A one-woman show, it premiered at the Theatr Mwldan in Wales and its operatic offerings are collected here on this must-have Handel-centric collection.

Several years ago, I heard Buddug Verona James perform the title in Gluck’s reform opera Orfeo ed Euridice in Toronto with Opera Aetelier. She was quite wonderful in the role, to say the least, and I have since continued to keep track of her career. Not only is Ms. Verona James an accomplished singer, she is also a consummate actor, a notion that is fully exhibited here in this recording. Even without seeing her, one can hear the drama through her singing and she is, as ever, infinitely expressive.

Although Handel was not Italian, he specialized in writing operas based in the Italian aesthetic but he expanded upon the already existing style and created heroic roles for the most beloved and cherished voice of the day, the castrati. Castrati were, in essence, men who had glorious voices as young boy sopranos and whose family would offer them to the service of the church. In a barbaric practice that ceased around the end of the century, the young boys would not be entirely castrated, rather, a specific artery would be severed that allowed their voice to sing in the upper register where a soprano or mezzo-soprano would normally sing, even after puberty. These voices possessed incredible power and the capability of effecting intensely long lines of florid coloratura. For this reason, Handel began to write arias that were embedded with coloratura and lugubriously long-winded lines. Today, mezzo-sopranos often perform the roles of the castrati, however Buddug has caused a pseudo cross-dressing innovation by being a woman who is playing a man who sings like a woman.

The CD opens with one of Handel’s delightful and charming arias, “Dopo Notte” from Ariodante. Each aria is associated with the name of a historical Castrato, in this case Carestini (c1705-c1758). It begins with a lovely balanced instrumental introduction, from which Ms. Verona James glides in using appropriate aesthetic properties, voce bianca and swelling into a gloriously full-bodied sound with vibrato. Her Italian is quite wonderful and authentic, with significant use of legato for affect. Ms. Verona James’ voice is a lovely burnished mezzo with a spectacular squillo in the upper tessitura. Her fioritura on “vago sole” is a technical wonder and she ends the prima parte by applying a trill affect that is so stunningly produced that it seems almost computerized.

The instrumental consort is supportive and never over-bearing. They interact with each other, and provide a solid foundation for Ms. Verona James glistening passages. The contrasting B section of the aria is well produced, with the Violin first stating the coloratura passages that Verona James applies directly after, in an imitative fashion.

The return of the opening section is imbued with textual-painting, and her fioritura and use of baroque aesthetic practice is to be commended. An expansive and wonderful depth of tonal range, Ms. Verona James’ ending stretches from the very top of the mezzo range into a luscious chest voice, that is commensurate with landing on the word “terra” (ground). Listening to Handel sung by a poor singer often be boring, however there is not one boring moment in this interpretation of one of Handel’s beloved arias.

“Cara Sposa” from Rinaldo is another of Handel’s gems. This opens with an appropriately chosen tempo with the gamba and violins in weepy conversation. In an aria where mezzos often blow the roof off the opening line, Ms. Verona James sings it in a reserved and appropriate aesthetic. The lovely dissonances are blatant here and the voice almost resembles a member of the instrumental consort, rather than a voice being accompanied by instruments. The instrumentalists here exquisitely perform the lovely falling lines Handel writes for them. Ms. Verona James employs a pathetic tone and uses minimal vibrato here, to invoke pathos. She uses the text most powerfully. Her arrival on the word “pianti” is enough to give one shivers. There is a painful aura about the stretched dissonances and exuberant control applied by Ms. Verona James.

The middle section is a wonderful display of vocal control and her mastery of the Italian language. She easily throws off the intricate text and continues within the style of the day. This is the mark of a truly experienced vocalist.

The ornamented return of the prima parte is lovely with circular ornaments and some exquisite choices in terms of the Baroque penchant for dissonance. Ms. Verona James is so lovingly bound to this aesthetic that one wonders if this is exactly how we would have heard Handel during his day. A truly wonderful and expressive performance without the sometimes-bombastic interpretation of modern day singers who see this as a “big” sing and infuse it with emotion that would not be possible by a character in such pain.

From La Resurrezione, Ms. Verona James, in the style of “Senesino,” sings the aria “Piangete.” A lovely opening, this aria demonstrates how Handel oftentimes moves to key areas that are not anticipated. The lower range of Ms. Verona James voice is expressed here. It is seamless; there is not even a hint of shifting through the passaggi. Her expressive application on “Piangete, sì piangete” is perfectly matched by the weeping quality of the gamba that is also in its lower range.

On an aside, most of Handel’s arias are more historically known as Da Capo arias (where there is an ABA form followed in the music, with the B section exhibiting a contrast from the A material. The opening material is then repeated but ornamented by the singer, and should be in authentic aesthetic practice.

“Sento la gioia” is from an opera that is not often performed but that consists of several attractive arias, Amadigi. Ms. Verona James has selected two contrasting ones from Amadigi for this recording. She has been wise to select arias that display the different areas of her voice. This lies definitely in the mid-range and is a shimmering display of coloratura and technical prowess. The word “scintilla” and “stella” (glimmering stars) is almost representative of her vocal quality. In a most wonderful moment, the instrumentation stops while she holds an extended tone in voce bianca that is breathtakingly beautiful. The middle section is introduced by a lovely duet by the violins. Again, Ms. Verona James gives an authentic textual performance here. The return of the opening material is more imbued with vibrato and full-bodied singing, as the style suggests. Her fioritura is priceless, breathtaking, and effortless

One of Handel’s most beautifully written arias is “Pena Tirana,” also from Amadigi. This is a lovely opening with a glorious expansion of dissonances. In a more weeping interpretation than is sometimes presented, Ms. Verona James is secure and stately in her aesthetic value. When in duet with an instrument, she is always sensitive to the instrumental value and doesn’t cloud its importance with her own voice.

The B section begins with a repeat of the opening instrumental material with a lovely falling line. Imbued with a continuing lyrical bass line, Handel creates a countermelody that functions effectively with the voice. Perhaps Ms. Verona James use of “t’s” in the Italian here are a little too explosive for authenticity’s sake and could have been softer. The repeat of the opening material is beautifully ornamented and effected by both soloist and ensemble.

In “Ho un non so che nel core” used in La Resurrezione/Agrippina/Il Pastor Fido the opening, in duet with a solo violin is rhythmically exciting and Ms. Verona James’ voice is open and freely spinning here. The following display of cross-rhythms created by the instrumental ensemble is not anticipated. The instrumental group sounds more like a swing-group. Here we have juxtaposition of modernity over a historical voice. I had an excellent laugh at the end of this, especially with the interjecting “Hey!” by the instrumentalists. After a CD of serious and technically riveting moments, this comes as a surprise and is a little shocking at first, but pleasantly so.

Buddug-Verona-James-Bio-pic.pngWelsh Mezzo, Buddug Verona James

“Addio miei sospiri” from Orfeo ed Euridice is the only offering by Gluck and ends the CD in, what is, a lovely display of Ms. Verona James’ tonal range and almost unbelievable ornaments. A good number of years ago, a young mezzo emerged with such coloratura that it was said to be almost impossible, Cecilia Bartoli. Listening to this, I would equate Buddug Verona James with a similar technical ability for creating such seamless coloratura; so similar, in fact, that I am going to go so far as to suggest that displaying these two singers in the same production would be more than remarkable. Brava Buddug! This true historical and technically masterful singer deserves to be recognized and valued in the opera world as a brilliant gem.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere © 2008
PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B

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