Xavier Sabata: "Bad Guys"
Handel Arias from Tamerlano, Ariodante, Teseo, Amadigi di Gaula, Giulio Cesare, Ottone. Il Pomo d'Oro, Minasi. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi Aparté APO48
Ignore the scowl and the villainous domed head on the cover of Xavier Sabata's disc of Handel arias; the Spanish countertenor is just trying to shake our confidence in his smooth, even, sensuous alto. He possesses an instrument of wonderful color, flexible in grace notes and passagework, evenly produced except in those low ranges used only for the direst threats and rages. In order to avoid arias familiar from the programs of other singers, Sabata has chosen numbers assigned by Handel to less than admirable figures. But Handel's bad guys have feelings, too. They crave love, revenge, military glory, and it's not easy to distinguish wicked sentiments from those expressed by heroes. The cruel heart may yearn as fondly as the kind one.
For example, there may be hypocrisy in Polinesso's amorous "Spero per voi," from Ariodante — and Polinesso is as double-tongued a villain as strides the Handelian stage — but there is only seductive allure in Sabata's tone in singing it. When the same character sings of "honor, justice, love" (Dover, giustizia, amor), we have no reason to think him sincere, but the text and the tune would do quite as well if he were. Sabata waits for a third aria, "Se l'inganno sortisce felice," to reveal Polinesso's true colors, dashing all over the scale to express his contempt for virtue with a hard edge most unlike the singer we have come to know thus far.
The disc opens with "Vo' dar pace," from Tamerlano, and Riccardo Minasi's Il Pomo d'Oro firmly slices the downbeat to depict the tyrant pacing back and forth. On this platform, Sabata displays delicate triplets and grace-note attacks while sounding arrogantly confident of surmounting feminine resistance. In a similar vein is "Voglio stragi" (I want carnage!), from Teseo: Egeo has lost his regal self-control, a fit of temper demonstrated by firm rhythms and staccato descents. Earlier, in "Serenatevi, o luci belle," Sabata uses a haughty, declamatory manner and fioritura to express Egeo's command that the girl he loves (unrequitedly) cheer up. Tolomeo, the spoiled-brat pharaoh in Giulio Cesare,is perhaps the most familiar Handelian nasty, and "Domerò la tua fierezza" is not the music of a hero. Sabata emphasizes this by sneering certain words and restraining more sensuous qualities.
But Dardano's "Pena tiranna" (Amadigi di Gaula) is an aria of sincere heartbreak, perhaps Handel's best suit, and Sabata plumbs its despairs; his "Agitato il cor" is torn between extremes, expressed in rhythm and vocal ornament as well as text. Adelberto in Ottone, too, seems utterly sincere in his love for Teofane, of which he sings in both hopeful major ("D'innalzar i flutti") and abject minor ("Bel labbro formato"), ornamenting the word "labbro" on the da capo as if describing not just the lips but the figure of his beloved.
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