Rolando VillazÛn — Handel

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
(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 VillazÛn. 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 VillazÛn singing castrato arias in
different keys.

The performances by VillazÛn and McCreesh bring together the best of both
worlds — exacting period-performance standards with operatic intensity.
Throughout much of the recording VillazÛn’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
“Fatto inferno Ë 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
. In these arias VillazÛn 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 VillazÛn’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, VilllazÛn 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 sarÚ la maggior furia

It is well-known that VillazÛn 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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product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 8057 (Int’l deluxe ed.)
Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 8056 (Int’l ed.)