“HANDEL: Bad Guys” = Vo’ dar pace a un’ alma altiera from “Tamerlano”; Spero per voi, si, si from “Ariodante”; Voglio stragi, e voglio morte from “Teseo”; Pena tiranna from “Amadigi di Gaula”; Dover, giustizia, amor from “Ariodante”; Bele dèe di questo core from “Giulio Cesare in Egitto”; D’innalzar I flutti al ciel from “Ottone, rè di Germania”; Bel labbro formato from “Ottone, rè di Germania”; Domerò la tuo fierezza from “Giulio Cesare in Egitto; Serenatevi, o luci belle from “Teseo”; Se l’inganno sortisce felice from “Ariodante”; Agitato il cor mi sento from “Amadigi di Gaula” – Xavier Sabata, countertenor / Il Pomo d’Oro / Riccardo Minasi – Arparté AP048, 53:04 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
I’ve held off on this review longer than I should in order to wrestle a bit with a question I saw posed by a reviewer on the Web. The upshot was that since we really don’t know what the castrati of eighteenth-century opera sounded like, it’s similarly hard to know whether the modern countertenor is on target in his interpretations of roles taken by castrati in the operas of Vivaldi and Handel. And in a sense, the very title of the current recital album, Bad Guys, is provocative because it implies that Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata fully captures the essence of Handelian villains. In case you didn’t get the point, the cover photo of a scowling and rather feral-looking Sabata underscores it for you.
Both the music and Sabata’s performance reveal another reality as well, and that is, of course, that Handel is not given to melodramatic reductionism. His villains, for all their cruelty, are characters of psychological depth. Sabata’s selections from the operas certainly underscore this. Voglio stragi, e voglio morte from Handel’s Teseo (1713) is typical villain fare: the love-mad King Egeo (Aegeus) swears vengeance on the sorceress Medea, who has had Princess Agilea spirited away by demons she’s conjured. It’s a wild, driven aria in which Egeo exclaims that he wants slaughter, death, and cruelty visited on—somebody. But over against this animated display are arias that show the tender side of villainy, if there is such a thing. In the very next aria, Pena tiranna from Amadigi di Gaula (1715), the unscrupulous Dardano, who is determined to kill Oriana’s love for the hero Amadigi and win her for himself, sings tenderly, achingly of his love. “I feel in my heart a cruel pain, / With no hope of finding compassion,” he laments, and the strings of the orchestra mirror the knife-like pangs he must sense.
Handel’s villains can be suave, sophisticated in their appeals to the ladies they favor, even if they can turn on a dime to spite and cruelty. Adelberto, the heavy in Handel’s 1723 Ottone, plots to usurp the hero’s throne and steal his girl. But in his Act I aria Bele dèe di questo core, he pleads his case to Ottone’s betrothed, Teofane, with melting blandishments, positing Teofane as a goddess whose face reflects the heavens. You’d think he couldn’t lose with a line like that, although of course he doesn’t get the girl in the end, despite stealing her away in a boat—just part of the many complications in a typically convoluted plot line. Even more appealing is Adelberto’s Act III aria Bel labbro formato (“Fair lips, formed / To make me blessed”), with its air of melancholy and hopefulness mixed.
But these tenderer moments are more than balanced by arias in which the villain shows his true stripes, including Tolomeo’s nasty gloating over the apparent defeat of his sister Cleopatra in battle, Domerò la tua fierezza (“I will tame your pride”). Sabata rounds out his recital with two contrasting arias that expose the mean-spirited intents of the heavies: Polinesso’s haughty Se l’inganno sortisce felice (“If deception proves successful / I shall forever shun honesty”) and Dardano’s crazed Agitato il cor mi sento (“I feel my heart aroused / By love and rage”).
To return, then, to the question I posed at the beginning of this review. It may be impossible to know what the castrati of Handel’s day, such as Gaetano Berenstadt (the first Tolomeo and Adelberto), brought to their roles. (And incidentally, not all of these roles were assigned to castrati. Dardano and Polinesso were originally sung by female contraltos.) However, in selecting arias that show the several sides of Handel’s operatic villains, and by extension the depth of Handel’s psychological insight into his characters, Sabata showcases the range of his talents, which is considerable. The voice is pure, ringing, and at least in this music, firm from top to bottom: an instrument capable of portraying deep melancholy or rage with equal sensitivity.
The ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro under Riccardo Minasi accompanies with equal regard for the emotional range of Handel’s music. I’ve already noted the strings’ contribution in Pena tiranna, and just as commendable is the fervor of the playing in Voglio stragi, e voglio morte. Good sound as well from a monastery in the Northern Italian town of Lonigo.