sun 14/07/2024

Rolando Villazón, Gabrieli Players, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Rolando Villazón, Gabrieli Players, Royal Festival Hall

Rolando Villazón, Gabrieli Players, Royal Festival Hall

Tenor in Handel is no purist but he is irresistible

Rolando Villazón: Clowning around in Handel, but singing with irresistible charm and immediacy

Since the passing of Luciano Pavarotti, there’s been a gigantic hole for a tenor of gold-plated opera chops and the gift of communication, and Rolando Villazón - young as he is, at only 38 - already appears to have sealed that gap up effortlessly. His stint as judge on the lamentable Popstar to Operastar on ITV recently left everyone tarnished but him.

Villazón not only has a dazzling voice and uniquely electric hair, but sports about on the platform with a puppyish vivacity that brings dead places to life around him and endears him widely. Roger Federer meets Groucho Marx, said my companion accurately.

All of which burnished the aura and presentation of his concert last night of Handel opera arias with the early music specialists, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players. This was not a night for purists, but it was great fun. McCreesh’s group (mostly women, intriguingly, over whom the tall conductor towers proprietorially) play with short stringy strokes and the skimmed-milk tone of Handel’s century, while Villazón delivers a singing style that’s full-cream 19th-century Italianate verismo fused with fearless 21st-century communication skills.

In the vast spaces of the Royal Festival Hall (a debut here for the Gabrieli Players) the small forces and different eras married surprisingly well and audibly, with McCreesh intuitive to every vagary of the singer - and vagaries there were, including a memory lapse that stopped his second Xerxes aria, "Crude furie", in its tracks and forced a restart. “It happens,” smiled McCreesh to the audience.

Villazón’s party spirit and wholesale commitment to the full bodily incarnation of whatever emotion he is singing about - eyeball-rolling jealousy, flailing rage, knotted-up righteousness - costs something in terms of clarity of run and intonation. There was a great deal of clowning about; in Serse’s "Più che penso" he gnawed his fist in the parody of a tantrum, in "Ombra mai fù", his encore, he spread his arms wide and scooped his notes like an ice-cream salesman (though why not? It’s a love song to a tree). Yet what blisteringly exact sparks he struck in the furious runs of "Crude furie", and in Bajazet’s defiant call to arms, "Ciel e terra", his running leaps and vaults stabbed the air with warrior bravado. He simply is a stage animal par excellence, and it probably doesn’t matter that much to him what century the role comes from, because it’s the character he's playing who matters, and this character is alive and breathing now.

Witness the great sympathy and sustained delicacy of his Ariodante aria, "Scherza, infida", where Handel softly washes layers of watery tears under the voice, and squeezes the heart with the vocal line’s melodic ache. McCreesh’s band played at a mournful whisper, Villazón sang with restrained and sustained grace of tone while never letting the emotion feel less than immediate, here, now. A few minutes later his dying breaths as Bazajet served the composer no less than himself, emphasising the acutely touching effect of Handel’s triple time as it portrays the halting breaths of a man’s last minutes. It’s better than Puccini.

In a sense, Villazón’s very modern and unpretentious immediacy is the best possible champion for Handel, rather than the awkward academic dryness of some of the puritans or lofty pretentiousness of some of the postmodernists. His companion on stage for two Cleopatra arias from Giulio Cesare, the young British soprano Lucy Crowe, is more in the current vein of clean, bright-voiced Handelians. Sheathed as tightly as a mermaid in black sequins, with her very lovely ash-blonde ringlets tumbling down over her shoulders, she made a fetching picture, delivering some infectiously sparkling coloratura in the triumphant "Da tempeste", whereas the tragic plea of "Se pietà" came across as over-thinking and over-working the lower areas of her voice. She has the pipes, now she has to develop some interpretative and communicative electricity.

In a quieter way, that had been instantly evident in the opening orchestral introductory piece, The Arrival of The Queen of Sheba, where the arrival of one of the oboes caught my ear. Katharina Spreckelsen later returned as the commanding soloist in the 3rd Oboe Concerto, confirming the strange shift of hierarchy that has taken place in orchestras. Once oboes were the divas and strings the backing group, and this accounts for the very fruity and assertive sound of Spreckelsen’s creamy-white instrument, while the Gabrieli’s strings know their place. The concerto's modulatory interest is constrained by having to sit (I guess) in the oboe’s comfortable notes, but in the Sarabande there is a sudden breakout of almost vocal flexibility and fluidity that reminds you just what total, overwhelming love Handel felt for the human voice.

  • The Gabrieli Consort & Players' next concerts are with Villazón in Paris’s Salle Pleyel on Thursday and Munich’s Philharmonie Gasteig on 10 May, then Handel’s La Resurrezione in St John’s Smith Square, London on 20 May, and Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in Brinkburn Priory, Northumberland on 10 and 11 July.
  • The related album, Handel Arias, with Rolando Villazón, Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort
  • Villazón's next UK concert is 6 December at the Royal Festival Hall - see his website
  • Check out what's on at the Southbank Centre

Watch the trailer for Villazon, McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players' Handel album:

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