02 November 2013

CD REVIEW: HÄNDEL INSÓLITO – Arias for Coloratura Baritone & Harpsichord (E. Barragán-Géant, baritone; Géant Records)


GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Händel Insólito – Arias from Atalanta, Berenice, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Joshua, Partenope, Rinaldo, Semele, Serse, Tamerlano, and the Dettingen Te Deum—Emiliano Barragán-Géant, coloratura baritone and harpsichord [Géant Records; 1CD, 57:30; Available on demand from Amazon]

Thinking of a conceit popular for many years with writers concerned with musical topics, it is tempting to suggest that Händel Insólito is not anyone’s grandmother’s recital of Händel arias.  Unless one is very young or the branches of one’s family tree are bent by progenitors of the likes of Dame Emma Kirkby and René Jacobs, however, it is not likely that the proverbial grandmother was too concerned with recitals of Händel arias.  For young singers starting their careers in the past quarter-century, even those with no particular affinities for Baroque music, Händel repertory has offered a rich treasury from which to pluck choice gems for auditions, and endeavors in Händel repertory have become almost standard fare for many singers, though with results of uncertain quality.  What is certain is that Händel Insólito is unlike any of the other Händel recitals released in recent years.  Accompanying himself with his own arrangements for harpsichord of Händel’s often elaborate orchestrations, Venezuelan coloratura baritone Emiliano Barragán-Géant delivers thirteen of Händel’s most sublimely-crafted arias with sovereign musicality that is audibly at the service of a deep love for Händel’s music.  Transposing rôles for vocal registers other than those for which Händel composed them is a familiar practice, though thankfully one that has become less common during the past three decades, but the singular power of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s performances on Händel Insólito is the uncanny way in which he makes all of the selections on the disc—even those originally composed for castrati—very much his own, not merely adapting the tessitura to a manageable range but genuinely reinventing the music so that it sounds utterly natural in his voice.  All recordings of Händel repertory, vocal and instrumental, should exhibit such affection for the music!

Mr. Barragán-Géant’s voice is an unconventional instrument.  Described by the singer himself as being poised between the traditional baritone and tenor registers, his singing on Händel Insólito takes the voice across a wide range.  Excursions into tenor territory are mostly secure and effective, but a few of the lowest notes interpolated at the ends of B-sections stretch Mr. Barragán-Géant beyond the bottom extremity of the voice’s comfort zone.  His technique encompasses sonorous expansion of Händel’s cantilena lines, and his command of coloratura is frequently dazzling.  Ornamentation is sometimes extravagant but largely tasteful.  Providing his own accompaniments, Mr. Barragán-Géant sets tempi that enable him to execute even the most demanding divisions accurately.  A bizarre element of his performances of the bravura showpiece arias on Händel Insólito, however, is the way in which tempi are distorted in order to quicken the pacing of coloratura passages.  If this is an expressive device, perhaps intended to depict the excitement of the texts, it is employed too frequently to be consistently meaningful.  If, as seems more likely, this is an idiosyncrasy of the singer’s technique, it is hoped that it can be smoothed out.  Rhythmic precision is tremendously important in the music of Händel, who was no less influenced in his composition of vocal music by the dance forms of the High Baroque than his contemporaries in France and Italy, and the singer’s manipulations of tempi distract from the brilliance of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s uncommonly crisp delivery of coloratura passages.  It is a pity, too, that he did not enjoy access to a top-quality harpsichord on which to accompany his singing.  The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, preserving details of Händel’s scoring that are typically lost in keyboard-only accompaniments, but Mr. Barragán-Géant’s witty reductions of the music should have been even more impressive if played on an expertly-crafted double-manual harpsichord.

The bravura arias offered on Händel Insólito receive performances from Mr. Barragán-Géant that astonish, caveats concerning tempi notwithstanding.  Cesare’s ‘Presti omai l’Egizia terra’ from Giulio Cesare, the title character’s ‘Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna’ from Serse, Tamerlano’s ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ and Leone’s ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’ from Tamerlano, Caleb’s ‘See the raging flames arise’ from Joshua, Demetrio’s ‘Sì tra i ceppi’ from Berenice, and the justifiably celebrated ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ from Rinaldo are all sung with startling immediacy and compelling sense of drama.  Technically, Mr. Barragán-Géant storms through the coloratura passages with extraordinary flexibility, making even of the formidably challenging ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ easy going.  Among these selections, only Leone’s aria from Tamerlano and Caleb’s explosive aria from the oratorio Joshua were composed for low male voices, but the superb technical acumen of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing ensures that even the arias composed for castrati—Senesino in the case of Giulio Cesare, Andrea Pacini in Tamerlano, Nicolini in Rinaldo, Domenico Annibali in Berenice, and Caffarelli in Serse—sound as though they were created specifically for his unique talents.  All of Cesare’s haughtiness is conveyed in ‘Presti omai l’Egizia terra,’ and the sting of Tamerlano’s fury emanates from every roulade in ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato.’

Wonderful as Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing of the showpiece arias is, it is in his singing of the slower arias, those magnificent, time-halting expressions of life-or-death emotions at which Händel excelled, that his gifts sparkle most alluringly.  Meleagro’s arioso ‘Care selve,’ composed for the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti and a recital favorite of singers as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Renata Tebaldi, is one of those melodic inventions so raptly beautiful that, like ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ it can sound coy.  Sung as Mr. Barragán-Géant sings it, without artifice, and of course remembering that the arioso is sung in Atalanta by a male character, it is grippingly effective.  The oft-hackneyed ‘Ombra mai fu’ is also here sung simply, Mr. Barragán-Géant finding the emotional core of Xerxes’ zany paean to his favorite plane tree.  Somnus’s ‘Leave me, loathsome light’ from Semele is one of Händel’s most glorious arias for a low male voice, and Mr. Barragán-Géant sings it superbly, though the descents into the vocal abyss are not entirely managed with ideal freedom.  First sung by alto castrato Antonio Bernacchi, Arsace’s ‘Ch’io parta?’ from Partenope is one of those moments in a Händel opera when life-changing sentiments suddenly erupt from music of sublime simplicity, and Mr. Barragán-Géant pours his own heart into expressing Arsace’s love for Rosmira.  ‘Vouchsafe, o Lord’ from Händel’s 1743 Dettingen Te Deum is sung with focus and intensity of expression, the voice elegantly sustaining Händel’s long-breathed phrasing.  The zenith of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing on Händel Insólito is his performance of ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’ from Rinaldo.  As Rinaldo laments the absence of his true love Almirena, Mr. Barragán-Géant bares his soul to the listener, his voice never sounding more beautiful than when singing of Rinaldo’s longing for his kidnapped wife.  So radiant is Händel’s music in ‘Cara sposa’ that, for the ten minutes of the aria’s duration, nothing else in the world matters except Rinaldo’s sorrow: so heartfelt is Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing of the aria that whatever concerns complicate the listener’s life temporarily fall away, and for those few minutes composer, character, singer, and listener unite in a way that is possible only in music.

Händel Insólito is a recital that deserves to have been recorded with Les Arts Florissants, the Freiburger Barockorchester, or another of the period-instrumental ensembles that shine in the music of Händel.  Sadly, Classical Music and Opera are now more than ever sports for the privileged and well-connected, both for those who seek to make careers as artists and for those who hope to enjoy their work.  Having studied in his native Venezuela, Canada, the United States, and Britain, Emiliano Barragán-Géant has fortunately enjoyed opportunities both to refine his voice and to share it with appreciative audiences.  This recital of Händel arias is more enjoyable than many efforts by less gifted but more famous singers, but to an extent it seems an opportunity missed despite the remarkable level of artistic achievement.  It is unfortunate and dishearteningly ironic that, in an age in which the music of Händel is more widely appreciated than at any other time since the composer’s death, a recital of Händel arias as memorable as Händel Insólito is not promoted by a major record label under the auspices of which its captivating sounds would extend to all corners of the music-loving world.  Occasionally flawed but never deviating from absolute commitment to the music, Händel Insólito is an effort by a talented young singer who seeks incendiary dramatic and musical verisimilitude rather than cold perfection.  The same might be said of Händel’s operas, and Emiliano Barragán-Géant gets nearer to the composer’s heart than almost any other singer yet recorded.