In a sense, Rolando Villazón's collection of Handel arias might be considered a crossover album. It faces the risks of albums that attempt to meld two musical styles in the hope of creating something fresh and appealing, but that run the risk of alienating fans of the styles being merged, who can be put off by what they perceive as musical compromises. In this case, the potentially opposing camps are fans of Villazón who love the authority and stylistic panache he brings to the Romantic bel canto operatic repertoire, and on the other hand, listeners who demand adherence to the strictest standards of authentic Baroque period performance practice. Both groups could reasonably approach this album with some trepidation; might Villazón give up his characteristically robust Romantic fervor in the service of this relatively chaste repertoire, or, conversely, might he sully this music by importing the mannerisms of nineteenth century Italian opera?
Happily, the musical solutions that he and conductor Paul McCreesh come up with may well please listeners with open ears -- all but the most diehard adherents of either camp. Villazón had already demonstrated his ability to persuasively negotiate the music of the early Baroque with his outstanding recording of Monteverdi madrigals, but the ornate coloratura of these arias represents an even larger step away from his comfort zone. Villazón's voice is undeniably larger and heavier than that of singers who specialize in Baroque repertoire, so he doesn't possess quite the level of effortless-sounding agility that's come to be expected in these operas. The weight and penetrating quality of his voice, though, give these arias and recitatives, particularly those of heroic character, a dramatic punch and urgency that are sometimes missing from performances of more purity and finesse. He tones down his use of vibrato from what is typical of nineteenth century opera, but he doesn't have the absolute tonal purity of the most prominent Baroque specialists. He's able to succeed in this repertoire, though, because of his extraordinarily focused intonation, which is always spot on, and allows for his restrained use of vibrato without producing any fuzziness of pitch. Interpretively, the intensity of Villazón's characterizations is fully in keeping with the Baroque ideal. (Baroque is a term that was originally applied pejoratively to art that was excessively expressive and elaborate.) For example, in Bazajet's death scene from Tamerlano (which is musically and dramatically far more realistic than most equivalent moments in nineteenth century opera), Villazón sings beautifully, but by the conclusion sounds convincingly like he's dying. McCreesh's performance with the Gabrieli Players is spirited and dramatically charged. The sound is clear and clean, with good balance and an excellent sense of presence.