on 30 October 2012
If you look at a fast aria in a Handel Opera, you see what looks like a part for a violin - a continuous string of notes, zipping up and down, without much chance to breathe or phrase. How do singers attempt to sing this music?
What a singer should do - according to the singing-manuals - is to sing each note separately, from the chest not the throat, and thread them seamlessly together to make an aural string of pearls. The only singer I have ever heard who could do this was Emma Kirkby - but hers was a light voice, probably much lighter than Handel's star sopranos, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, who often sang in houses holding a thousand or so. Our best Handel singers today are probably Sandrine Piau (a medium-scale voice) and Joyce DiDonato (a large voice - for range and power probably more like Senesino than Faustina). They do pretty well, but neither has ever entirely convinced me: under the stress of very fast lines they have to indulge in a little fakery.
Now comes Julia Lezhneva. She can do it according to the book. Listen to her Act III aria "Brilla nell' alma". Petrou rushes this (he has listened to Piau's version on her "Opera Seria" CD) but Lezhneva is not troubled. She places each note accurately, with a good tone, despite the hectic pace. An even better example is Rossane's Act II aria "Alla sua gabbia d'oro", where Petrou gets the speed just right (because he's listened to Sigi Kuijken's recording). This is an extreme display-piece, laden with cascades of arpeggios and trills - you can almost hear Handel saying to Bordoni, then newly arrived in London, "vell, Lady, show us vat you can do". Lezhneva sings it with perfect control, in a fresh, ringing voice.
Astonishingly she manages to sound relaxed, as if she is enjoying herself, which is unheard of in this most taxing music. Even the best singers' tone tends to harden in Handel's fast arias as they stave off panic, or try to: but not Lezhneva's. How a 23-year-old Russian has learnt to do it is beyond me, but the evidence is before us. She can sing it, and to put jam on it, she can sing it tastefully (no doubt because she's listened intelligently to Kirkby's Handel recordings). Hats off, Gentlemen!
For me this is quite enough reason to buy the recording, but perhaps I ought to add that the other two singers are more than adequate (in "Alessandro" only the three main characters matter). Cencic is on good form. I don't like falsettists in this music, yet at his best he almost persuades me; but I regret that just because he can go very high, he does. Karina Gauvin is an experienced Handel singer (she sang another Cuzzoni role on Curtis' recording of "Tolomeo"). I find her voice a bit hard-edged, but she sings accurately and blends well with Lezhneva in their duets, while remaining sufficient distinctive.
This is Petrou's sixth Handel Opera recording, and at least as good as his "Tamerlano" and "Giulio Cesare", which is high praise. Yes, as I hinted, his ideas can be derivative, and he is not faultless: he rushes sometimes, and he is a bit theorbo-happy, but these are very common failings. What is not common is a willingness to play the version Handel used (unlike, say, Gardiner or Curtis) and in general to let Handel speak for himself.
The band is first-rate - just listen to those unison violins in "Alla sua gabbia d'oro". The recording is not bad, but might have put a bit more air around the voices: Cencic is the worst sufferer from this.