Listen to this for: fire, tenderness and some amazing Orlandini
Xavier Sabata has too often been relegated to the role of secondo uomo in his operatic recordings, but this recital disc proves that he can be dazzling when he takes centre stage. Based around the dramatic concept of catharsis, this album focuses on moments of fear, anger and pity from Baroque operas. It not only plays to Sabata’s strengths but also serves up a feast of lesser known composers and arias. Recitatives and arias are featured by Ariosti, Caldara, Conti, Handel, Hasse, Orlandini, Sarro, Torri and Vivaldi. The one who blew me away was Orlandini, with two arias from his Adelaide. I’d never heard of the opera before and had hardly heard of Orlandini, but his music is stunning.
Recorded in late 2015, this showcases Sabata’s voice two years on from his last solo album, I Dilettanti and he has grown even more commanding. Now, different people like different countertenor voices, I know (some strange people don’t like them at all!), but objectively I think Sabata is one of the best out there at the moment. His versatility is admirable: he can sing with melting tenderness and grace, as in the eloquent Or mi pento from Hasse’s Conversione di Sant’ Agostino, or with fiery braggadocio, as in the two splendid arias from Orlandini’s Adelaide. His range is impressive, with high notes which are elegant and don’t show much trace of strain, and powerful low notes; and he handles coloratura with effortless panache.
The character with which Sabata invests each of his characters is also particularly impressive: he acts; he doesn’t just sing. That’s particularly noticeable in Vivaldi’s Gelido in ogni vena from Farnace – a brave choice, since his Parnassus colleague Max Cencic has made that aria a staple of his concert repertoire. But Sabata turns it into a drama. He’s helped by the almost intrusive presence of the orchestra on this track, whose scraping, shrieking strings help to give the aria the feel of a horror movie (Psycho came to mind). It’s not conventional, and it might not be to everyone’s taste, but it ramps up the melodrama of the moment when Farnace discovers that he’s been responsible for his son’s death. Poignant, raw and moving, it makes for immersive listening.
I focus on singers rather than orchestras, so don’t feel capable of judging Armonia Atenea, save to say they follow the custom of many young orchestras and keep things ticking along at a good pace. The album is structured so that we alternate between gentleness and fire, and the recording has been made somewhere with lovely resonant acoustics which flatter Sabata’s rich, rounded voice. The whole package makes for a dramatic and vibrant journey through the passions of the soul, in the hands of a master performer.