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Rolando Villazón — Handel
31 Mar 2009

Rolando Villazón — Handel

When considering his next recording project, notes Rolando Villazón, the idea of working on a set of Handel arias with Paul McCreesh was “not an obvious choice.”

Rolando Villazón — Handel

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This, of course, is an understatement: the idea of teaming a rising young opera star, most comfortable in the world of verismo opera, with a baroque specialist and his period-instrument orchestra to perform Handel is audacious, and at first sight, wildly inappropriate. But what issues from this unusual union is something quite remarkable, and at times, stunning. In a year in which there will be many tributes commemorating the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death, this may be one of the most surprising, and satisfying.

This recording features selections from four Handel operas — Tamerlano (1724), Rodelinda (1725), Serse (1738), and Ariodante (1735) — as well as two arias from La Resurrezione (1709), an oratorio from the composer’s Roman period. A number of the arias were not written originally for tenor, and have been transposed in this performance to better fit the voice of Villazón. Although purists may be offended by these changes, one must remember that during the age of Handel it was not unusual for arias to be transposed, sung in a different language from the recitative, or modified in any number of ways. Indeed, Joseph Addison, who wrote the first reviews of Handel’s operas in the early eighteenth century, observed that opera was “a joining together of inconsistencies.” If Handel could accept a castrato in the role of a man or a woman, singing emperors who sailed in open boats on a sea of paste-board, or singing witches lowered onto stage by ropes while fireworks were lit in the theatre (with emergency equipment at the ready should fire break out), we should be able to deal with Rolando Villazón singing castrato arias in different keys.

The performances by Villazón and McCreesh bring together the best of both worlds — exacting period-performance standards with operatic intensity. Throughout much of the recording Villazón’s voice exhibits a brilliance which is perfectly matched with the drama Handel wished to express in his music. The melismas, rapid passage work, and unusual leaps found in such arias as “Ciel e terra” from Tamerlano, or the recitative accompagnato “Fatto inferno è il mio petto” from Rodelinda, were written for dramatic effect, effects not altogether different from those required of a soloist in La Traviata or La Bohème. In these arias Villazón brings all of his trademark intensity to bear, and by so doing reveals a deep respect and affection for the music. His singing is never overpowering, his attention to the text is impressive, and his uncanny ability to match the tone quality of a baroque orchestra by moving in and out of straight-tone and vibrato are so expressive that one might think he had studied this type of music all his life. This recording is a tribute not just to his musicality, but to his intelligence.

Although some of the most popular of Handel’s Italian arias (e.g., “Ombra mai fu” from Serse) are included in this collection, the highpoint is undoubtedly “Scherza, infida” from Ariodante. McCreesh’s masterful handling of the muted string accompaniment along with Villazon’s astonishing tone and sensitivity makes this performance a treat irresistible to any lover of Handel. Similarly haunting is “Pastorello d’un povero armento” from Rodelinda, although in this aria Villazón’s normally strong Italian diction sometimes deserts him. While not all listeners may enjoy Bajazet’s death scene from Tamerlano, the expressive treatment of the dying sultan’s final moments is exactly what audiences in Handel’s day would have enjoyed. Indeed, Villlazón and McCreesh probably come as close as anyone to recreating the magical world of baroque opera with their obsessive and over-the-top interpretation of the lines “per tormentar, per lacerar, quell mostro io sarò la maggior furia d’Averno.”

It is well-known that Villazón has been struggling vocally of late, and this CD represents one of his first serious efforts since his year-long hiatus in 2007. To those who enjoy the pure beauty of his remarkable tenor voice, this collection will provide much pleasure and the assurance that he is again singing beautifully. To those who wish to gain a better understanding and appreciation of Handel, particularly listeners who are familiar only with The Messiah or Royal Fireworks Music, this set of arias will be an excellent introduction into the complexity and sophistication found so abundantly in the composer’s Italian vocal works.

Donald R. Boomgaarden

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