Let’s be clear: this was a performance of the highest order. From the first five notes of the overture, the sixteen-member orchestra Armonia Aténéa led by George Petrou ravished the audience of the Salle Pleyel with Handel’s full splendour. One of the most remarkable emerging talents of the new generation of Baroque conductors, the energetic yet sensible George Petrou simply knew how to create instant Handelian magic. And standing out from all of the brilliant and engaging performers on stage, 23-year-old soprano Julia Lezhneva brought the house down, stealing the show from her colleagues and probably going down in opera history through her stunning, flawless interpretation of Rosanna.

George Petrou © Ilias Sakalak
George Petrou
© Ilias Sakalak

Handel wrote Alessandro in 1726 to regain the affection of Georgian London, so he imported a new Italian soprano, Faustina Bordoni, who had to share billing with established prima donna Francesca Cuzzoni. His favorite singer, the castrato Senesino, was a third superstar, taking the title role. The opera was meant to overawe the London audience with its vocal fireworks and its flouting of the rigid Baroque convention of da capo arias and recitatives, replacing it wtih recitativo accompagnato and duets and trios.

There are only three historical characters in the plot: Alexander the Great (Alessandro), Rosanna and Clito. All other characters are the fruit of Handel’s imagination, which focused most of all on the possibilities for sentimental intrigue that have to come out of a love triangle. Max Emanuel Cencic, excellent in the role of Alessandro, brought to light the multiple facets of his character with rare delicacy and a fine sense of theatrical nuance and irony. As primo huomo he always maintains the audience’s rapt attention, never losing expressivity, and he sang all eight of his arias with perfect agility and conviction.

Cencic’s highlight was the aria of love, despair and disappointment “Vano amore”, perfectly suited to his sensibility and his ease in the low range. His every attack was clear, his legatos flawless, and every note was rounded and transported with subtle vocal and theatrical abilities – his coloratura has great flexibility from high to the low and his ornamentation was executed with elegant velocity that never went over the top. With exquisite musicality and a fine sense of harmony, Cencic added new sparkles to the initial emotion in every repeat and instictively knew how to hold the audience’s attention.

Rosanna was sung by breathtaking young soprano Julia Lezhneva, whose unusually crystal and pure coloratura, perfect articulation, extraordinary vocal volume, rare precision and powerful projection earned her huge, well deserved applause after every aria. I don’t remember a voice with such a power to cut through the orchestra, which could be heard clearly even in the most distant corner of the opera house. The audience was completely under the spell of the purity of her timbre and her almost inhuman, effortless coloraturas. Her charismatic presence and extraordinary vocal ease (above all in the high register) gave the whole evening a “star is born” feeling. The most memorable aria of the piece was “Lusinghe più care”, which Lezhneva sang with stunning ease and the agility of an nightingale, without any visible sign of effort... or indeed of breathing.

Her rival soprano Laura Aikin, singing Lisaura (Alessandro’s other lover), kept pace with prima donna Lezhneva by painting this second character with elegiac tones, while the second countertenor, Xavier Sabata, confirmed that he is the one of the most interesting emerging countertenors, who we will also be seeing much of in the future. His legatos were executed with great flexibility and fine intonation, every time receiving deserved applause. Clito’s role was sung by bass Pavel Kudinov with seductive timbre, and Cleone (to whom Handel gave only one aria) was sung by the third countertenor, the young and talented Vasily Khoroshev.

What distinguished this memorable performance was the involvement and interconnection of all the musicians. Their efforts were not in vain – the audience was howling with delight at the end.