“His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled,” the German composer Johann Joachim Quantz wrote about the countertenor Senesino, “He sang an allegro with fire, and he knew how to thrust out the running passages with his chest at some speed”. The obvious dramatic gifts of the celebrated countertenor clearly served Handel well, who composed nearly twenty roles for Senesino at the Royal Academy of Music. French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is known for his exquisite lyricism rather than probing dramatism or rapid coloratura; nevertheless, his programme of Handel arias, mostly written for Senesino, provided plenty of first-rate drama.

Philippe Jaroussky © Vo Van Tao
Philippe Jaroussky
© Vo Van Tao

At 39, Jaroussky’s voice has preserved its youthful beauty, and over time has acquired a depth that has allowed him to take on bigger Handel roles including those in Alcina, Theodora and Partenope. Nevertheless, his soft-grained mezzo-soprano ultimately has remained firmly lyric, and he was at his best in the more introspective arias in the programme. The faster arias were less successful, most notably the angry arias that ended both halves of the concert. Though Jaroussky’s voice has gained in richness over the years, his essentially lyrical voice lacks the edge to truly pull off Handel’s fiendish revenge arias. More damagingly, his habit of slightly scooping up to notes did not allow him to clearly articulate the beginning of the majority of the runs, though his breath control through the coloratura was impressive and ornamentation cleverly devised to show off the most resonant parts of his voice.

However, there are few things more sublime that Jaroussky in lyrical Handel. In “Se potessero i sospir’ miei” from Imeneo (cleverly reworked by Handel from one of David’s arias from Saul), Jaroussky brought a charming lilt to the vocal line, ornamenting the da capo with graceful runs and sublime high pianissimi. Radamisto’s “Ombra cara” revealed his penchant for seemingly endless legato lines, effectively shading his tone in response to the chromaticism of the orchestration. Best of all, however, was Tolomeo’s “Stille amare”, preceded by an accompanied recitative that showed Jaroussky at his most dramatically involved. The aria itself was a marvel of restrained tragedy, sung with daring vulnerability and exquisite ornamentation.

In terms of articulation, Jaroussky was completely overshadowed by his own Ensemble Artaserse, which gave one of the most impressively vigorous performances I have ever heard from a Baroque ensemble. Though not a particularly large ensemble, they played with a brilliance and attack completely filled the hall, but could just as easily be scaled down to the finest thread. The arias were cleverly interspersed with orchestral movements in related keys, mostly drawn from Handel’s Op.6 Concerti grossi, giving ample opportunity for the orchestra to shine. The Imeneo aria was preceded by the well-known Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon, taken at a marvellous pace and brilliantly displaying the virtuosity of every ensemble member. Particularly noteworthy among the ensemble were cellist Elisa Joglar and oboist Guillaume Cuiller, the latter of whom had plenty of opportunity to shine in the slow movements from two of the Op.3 Concerti grossi. He and bassoonist Nicolas André joined Jaroussky in their encore of “Pena tiranna” from Amadigi di Gaula, again an ideal fit for the countertenor’s exquisite musicality. Clearly having been a massive hit with the audience, Jaroussky provided two further encores from Serse starting with a witty rendition of Arsamene’s “Si, la voglio” followed by the inevitable “Ombra mai fu”.