Tenors are somewhat rare in Baroque music, where heroes tend to be castrati or women in drag, and tenor roles, when they occur, tend to be rather minor characters (for example, Lurcanio in Ariodante). Really good tenors specialising in this repertoire are, not surprisingly, like hen’s teeth, and to be cherished when they turn up. Rising singer Juan Sancho from Madrid is making quite a name for himself, and his solo recital at Halle was most enjoyable – and well received. He was accompanied by some of the younger members of Armonia Atenea, conducted on this occasion by Markellos Chryssicos from the harpsichord, who were sounding very fresh and lively. Sancho himself was very energetic and enthusiastic, singing without a book.

Juan Sancho © Juan Sancho
Juan Sancho
© Juan Sancho

“Handel’s Seven Deadly Sins” was the theme of the recital, which entailed finding relevant arias for tenors from Handel’s operas and oratorios. That this was not an entirely easy task is shown by the fact that some of the chosen arias had rather a tenuous connection to the sin they were meant to represent, or while illustrating a particular named sin, were not really all that sinful.

The first aria, exemplifying Völlerei (Gluttony), was Belshazzar’s “Let festal joy triumphant reign”, wherein the Babylonian king exhorts his court to partake of free-flowing wine. It could be argued that a better thematic choice might have been Gobrias’s air, “Behold the monstrous human beast, Wallowing in excessive feast!” but of course that is sung by a bass. It might be supposed that anyone with any familiarity with the oratorio in question would naturally be reminded of this and the general context, and several of the following arias seemed to be intended to work something like this. In any case, Sancho sang this with great relish, displaying a strong, clear and flexible voice with good English diction and convincing squillo at the top.

Lust was unsurprisingly represented by arias sung by Jupiter in Semele, “Come to my arms” – sung with marked intensity – and “Ah, take heed what you press”, perhaps including the fate Semele will undergo (“I shall harm you”) as a reminder that sins do not go unpunished.  “Come rather, Goddess sage and holy” from L’allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato did not seem quite appropriate for Faulheit (Sloth), and it is usually sung by a soprano. If we go back a few pages in the score, however, we do find mention of “some idle brain” in the accompagnata. In any case it was beautifully sung, with excellent breath control.

Arias from Berengario’s Lotario again did not quite seem to illustrate Gier (Greed), although one supposes the character is driven by greed for the throne of Pavia, with “Regno e grandezza” being more of a railing against fate – perhaps representing the punishment motif again. These arias were the most purely operatic so far on the program, and were well-delivered, again with ringing tone and dramatic affect. Grimoaldo’s recitative and aria from Rodelinda, “Fatto inferno … Pastorello d’un povero Armento” represented Neid (Envy), but it is rather a benign kind of envy: Bertarido envying the pleasant life of a shepherd compared to his own situation (self-inflicted though it is). The aria was sung with feeling and a very smooth legato delivery

Stolz (Pride) brought us arias for Bajazet from Tamerlano: “Forte e lieto”, in which the doomed, erstwhile Ottoman Emperor says he would display more pride in his forthcoming death if it were not for his daughter, and “A’ suoi piedi padre esangue”, again more about his daughter in the face of his death. The latter was sung with great power, especially in the da capo. The final sin was Zorn (Wrath), illustrated by an aria from Flavio, “Fato tiranno e crudo”. Sung by Ugone, one of the cranky old fathers; it was dynamically and emphatically sung by Sancho.

Following the seven sins, we had two ensuing fates: Verdammnis (Eternal damnation) and Erlösung (Redemption). The former was depicted in another aria from Bajazet, “Figlia mia”, imploring his daughter not to weep in the face of his death, the latter represented by Septimius’s aria “Descend, kind pity” from Theodora. In the first instance, Sancho’s singing was gentle and tortured, in the second he projected more sweetness, with greater intensity in the da capo and a final expressive cadenza.

The program was greeted with great enthusiasm, which seemed to take the performers by surprise, and they appeared not to have prepared any encores. Seeming to snatch ideas out of the air, Sancho rewarded the audience with repeats of “Let festal joy” and then the A section of “Regno e grandezza” – both sung with great joy and abandon.