Published January 15. 2014 10:00AM Updated January 15. 2014 3:12PM
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Baroque opera is a stranger in these parts, meaning most of the United States. And few people understand the greatness of Handel because the heart of his musical output was nearly 50 operas written in Italian, static productions that do not fit the model for opera staging today. Spend some time with H
andel operas, and you'll realize why he was one of the pantheon.
Which brings us to Sandrine Piau … the most incomparable singer today. I think no singer is as talented and as thrilling in the very deep repertoire of Baroque and Classical era opera. Watch a YouTube video of the 48-year-old French soprano, and you'll see that for her, music is a full-body experience.
Listen to these samples from one of my favorite CDs ever made, and you'll get it. This 2005 recording – "Handel - Opera Seria" – features a wonderfully energetic ensemble Les Talens Lyriques led by her longtime collaborator Christophe Rousset. Piau's singing is joyous and intended to thrill. As critic David Vernier wrote (before calling it the disc of the year):
"Piau shows the difference between mortal accomplishment and super-human dominion over Handel's magnificent creations. The runs sparkle, the leaps land with pinpoint accuracy on every note, and the phrasing is executed with fiery dynamic impact, clear enunciation, and a forward drive that pulls us dancing along."
The first track, "Scoglio d'immota" from the opera "Scipione," has it all. The lyrics, about love withstanding tempestuous waters and stormy winds, set the tone, and her vocal athleticism, without sacrificing beautiful tone, is jaw-dropping. Her ability to slide from vibrato to tremolo to trill seems inhuman. This is a "da capo" aria, meaning it has an A-B-A structure, in which the singer presents the opening A material once, then sings a contrasting central B section, and then returns to the first material, when she gets to embellish with all the vocal fireworks she can muster. Da capo style was intended to let singers show off, and Piau simply dazzles us here.
I include three more tracks from the CD, two high-energy arias in "Brilla nell' alma" from "Alessandro" and "Agitata da due venti" from "Faramondo," and to show Piau's emotional range, Cleopatra's lament "Se pietà di me non senti" from "Giulio Cesare." Incomparable baroque singing …
I've played this disc for many friends – musicians and plain old music lovers alike – and folks are uniformly blown away by it.
Then just for laughs, I am including that glowing late Romantic lieder "Morgen!" by Richard Strauss, to show that there's more to Piau than flash.
Is Piau new to you? Or do you have a different favorite recording of this material?