For those who associate Rolando Villazón with the lyric tenor heroes of 19th-century operas - and who doesn't? - the notion of him singing Handel may come as a bit of a shock. Since when has the 36-year-old Mexican been interested in early 18th-century music? "I can tell you exactly", he replies. "I was in Paris, at the start of my career, and I bought a CD of Cecilia Bartoli singing Vivaldi. I became obsessed by it. So did my wife. Any excuse - if we had something to celebrate, or needed cheering up - and we would listen to it over and over again. Of course, that was BC: before children! Ever since then I have sought out recordings of Baroque music. And I dreamed of singing it myself, although I knew that the way I was singing at that time didn't suit this repertoire."

His chance came when he met the conductor and harpsichordist Emmanuelle Haïm. She persuaded him to make a CD of Monteverdi. "And I must say that it was one of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences of my career. Another door opened in my inner life. I loved the discovery of new colours in my voice, of learning how to use the words, of searching for the right edition. It was around this time that I also said to myself: 'I can do lieder'. But that's another subject!"

Having convinced himself that he could sing Baroque arias, "and there was no need to worry what people thought", Villazón's next venture into that repertoire seemed obvious. With the 250th anniversary of George Frideric Handel's death on the horizon (the great German-English composer died in 1759), why not record some of the greatest arias from Handel's opere serie? Nevertheless it was a bold choice. Until he made this recording he had sung barely a note of Handel in public.

"Actually, I once sang 'Ombra mai fu', though I can't remember where or when. And I probably tried to sing it like Caruso or Corelli used to. Don't get me wrong: of course I love what those legendary tenors did. But what I wanted to do with this new album was to get closer to the Ba-roque tenor's music rather than just give a lyric tenor's interpretation of it."

What Villazón did want to do was engage fully - musically, stylistically and philosophically - with the world of period-instrument Baroque performance. Paul McCreesh, whose Gabrieli Players are at the forefront of Britain's period-instrument movement, was contacted and agreed to work on the project.

"Why not?" the conductor says. "In a sense this marks the coming-of-age of the Baroque music revival. Even great Romantic tenors want to sing it now! Of course, the convention is for lighter voices to do this repertoire. But once I had some preliminary rehearsals with Rolando, I realized that he has a fantastic instrument for Baroque music. His voice has great 'ping'; it is very finely tuned. And Rolando is also very open to stylistic suggestions. He is acutely aware that singing Handel with Puccini-like swoops and portamenti isn't going to work."

Villazón didn't regard this discipline as a limitation. "If I felt that I needed to restrict my tech-nique in order to sing this music, what I would really be saying is: 'To sing this repertoire you need to be a limited singer.' But that's not how I see it. The energy you need for Baroque repertoire is the same as for later music, the intensity is the same, and you have to think just as hard about vocal colours."

"Also, there is nowhere to hide in Handel. Everything has to be very clear - consonants, attack, the way you come down from a high note. Above all, you have to make the text come alive. In my view Baroque arias are closer to lieder than to Romantic opera. The diction must be so clear, and the colouring of the words so subtle."

Villazón and McCreesh pored over dozens of Handel's tenor arias when preparing this album. But their final choice is controversial - not least because several of the arias they selected were not written for tenor at all. "There are two reasons for that", McCreesh explains. "First, Handel's operatic tenor arias aren't always his best music, and second, they are often quite low-lying and therefore not especially well suited to the brilliance of Rolando's voice. Why shouldn't he sing transposed versions of the great castrato roles? They sit brilliantly in his voice - arias were transposed all the time in Handel's day. Even Handel himself did it. Ariodante's 'Dopo notte', for example, exists in a version for tenor."

Villazón elaborates on this. "The mezzo arias are so much fun to sing that I found them irresistible. At first I was only going to do 'Dopo notte' plus 'Scherza, infida' (also from Ariodante) and 'Ombra mai fu' from Serse. But then Paul convinced me to do 'Più che penso' and 'Crude furie', also from Serse, and I'm very glad that he did."

The rest of the chosen items were written for tenor. Besides two arias from the oratorio La Resurrezione, which Villazón describes as "fantastic and beautiful", they include Bajazet's stunning arias from Tamerlano - probably the finest solos that Handel wrote for the tenor voice. Listening to Villazón record Bajazet's great death scene, it is striking how much visceral passion he put into colouring his vocal timbre. At times he really did suggest that he was drawing his last breath.

"I always say that in a recording studio you must put three times as much intensity into the music as you would on stage", Villazón observes. "That's to compensate for there being no visual drama, and no sense of danger from the possibility of failure. Also, the microphone doesn't have emotions like a live audience. You have to compensate for that, too. The pianissimos must be ppppp."

McCreesh has no problems with that. "Bajazet's last solo is one of the great death scenes in opera", he says. "It's absolutely essential to sing 'off the voice' - to add whatever non-musical timbres are effective to convey the moment of death. If you try to die with too much nourished tenorial tone, it's not going to work dramatically. I would be very surprised if Borosini, the tenor for whom Handel wrote the part, sang it in any other way."

Did the period instruments and period techniques of the Gabrieli Players affect the way that Villazón sang? "Yes, in a very positive way", he says. "You are obliged, when you hear string playing of that quality, to adapt your own sound so it matches. But what chiefly affected me was the amazing enthusiasm of this orchestra. And my God, what precision! We wasted zero time fixing orchestral problems. Their artistry is sensational."

So, having enjoyed himself immensely singing Handel on this album, can Villazón now see himself performing Handel on the stage? "Absolutely. I'd love to sing Bajazet in a production of Tamerlano. And, after that, why not even Serse? Who knows?"

Richard Morrison

12/2008 - back

CD & DVD 4778056/4778179/4778057/4778181