Rolando Villazón at Royal Festival Hall – Handel [Lucy Crowe & Paul McCreesh]

Solomon – Arrival of the Queen of Sheba
Rodelinda – Fatto inferno; Pastorello d’un povero armento
Concerto grosso in B flat, Op.3/2
Serse – Più che penso alle fiamme del core
Giulio Cesare – Se pietà di me non senti
Serse – Crude furie degl’ orridi
Ariodante – Scherza infida
Oboe Concerto in G minor
Tamerlano – Ciel e terra
Giulio Cesare – Da tempeste
Tamerlano – Bajazet’s death scene; Oh, perme lieto – Fremi, minaccia; Figlia mia; Tu, spietato

Rolando Villazón (tenor)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)

Katharina Spreckelsen (oboe)

Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh

Reviewed by: Melanie Eskenazi

Reviewed: 3 May, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Rolando VillazónDid I close my eyes and ‘Think of Scholl’? I did not, despite considerable temptation. More absurd things seem to be written about Rolando Villazón than any other singer, including the view that he is “up and coming” (some more knowledgeable might have said, ‘been and gone’) and that he is Pavarotti’s successor. It would be equally absurd to call him an ideal Handel singer, and anyone who thinks that his performance of this composer is either fluent or idiomatic, has no business writing about opera. What he is, in terms of this repertoire in the concert hall, is an entertainer in whom enthusiasm is personified, and who loves this music with a passion.

No one singer or type thereof has a monopoly on great music, and if Villazón’s advocacy of these wonderful works brings them to a wider audience, then I have few complaints. His vocal condition on this showing seems a long way from his effortlessly ardent Rodolfo and Alfredo, with many phrases missing their final words, but most of the arias were written for castrato voice and are now usually sung by countertenors or mezzo-sopranos: only Bajazet was conceived as a tenor role, and it was no accident that his arias showed Villazón to best advantage.

Grimoaldo’s recitative and aria from “Rodelinda” had plenty of expressive phrasing, at times to the detriment of the musical line, and for some reason it had been decided that ‘Più che pense’ (from “Serse”) was a comedy piece – London audiences with long memories may well recall Ann Murray’s beautiful singing of it (as ‘When I see her’) at English National Opera, but somehow we missed the humour there. There is perhaps better justification for ‘Crude furie’ from the same opera being regarded as a bit of a scenery-chewer, but this was sung with great intensity.

Villazón is at his best in quietly anguished, slower passages, and his “per tua colpa ora men vo” from Ariodante’s ‘Scherza, Infida’ was genuinely moving, as was his sense of righteous rage in Bajazet’s ‘Ciel e terra’ even though the passagework was too intricate for his weight of voice. Bajazet’s death scene, with Lucy Crowe as a deeply involved Asteria, reminded us not only of Villazón’s dramatic prowess but the greatness of the composer: this scene – Shakespearean in its depth and humanity – was clearly new to many in the audience, and it was heartening to witness the rapt attention it was given.

Lucy Crowe. Photograph: Sussie AhlburgLucy Crowe also contributed two of Cleopatra’s arias from “Giulio Cesare”, the first one ‘Se pietà’ sung with confident skill, although there were times when she might have been singing ‘Vissi d’arte’. As for the second, ‘Da tempeste’, it had been decided that she should vamp things up à la Danielle de Niese, which meant a lot of distraction from some blessedly florid runs.

Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Players took a while to warm up, but eventually provided the singers with enthusiastic support, as well as some lively work in the Oboe Concerto in G minor, with fluent playing from Katharina Spreckelsen.

The Royal Festival Hall was packed with adoring fans, to whom Villazón played up at every opportunity, nowhere more so than in the encores, ‘Ombra mai fu’ which he announced, and ‘Doppo Notte’ which he did not. Both are amongst the glories of the repertoire, so if his singing of the first could not equal a lighter, more appropriate voice in terms of agility and subtlety, and his wayward, if devoted, performance of the second lacked ideal flexibility, even die-hard Handelians would have to admit to being happy – after all, it’s not every day that a huge concert hall is full for a programme of Handel arias, even if most of us would admit to the sneaking feeling that we’d rather be hearing this singer in Puccini, and a lighter voice in the works of our hero.

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