In Aristotle’s Poetics, catharsis was considered a desirable state brought about by arousing and magnifying the emotions in such a way that the spectator’s inner being would be purified. The best way to do this, Aristotle reckoned, was to evoke fear and pity by confronting an audience with a vision of souls in torment.
The musical equivalent is what Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata aims to induce on the enterprising Aparté label with a string of mostly unknown opera seria arias by the likes of Orlandini, Conti, Torri, Caldara, Ariosti and Sarro plus a handful of classics from Handel, Hasse and Vivaldi thrown in for good measure and a nod to marketing. Not that marketing needs much help. With the hirsute Sabata taking what I presume is a cathartic icy shower on the cover, this is a CD that is unlikely to go unnoticed on the shelves.
With a good recital disc, the programme is half the battle, and in that respect Sabata has played an absolute blinder. He opens with a real find in the form of a classic ‘nemesis-aria’ from Orlandini’s Adelaide. Sabata has one of the richest, darkest countertenor voices on the circuit. Blessed with a splendid legato, his velvety tone never chests at the bottom, while his coloratura is detailed and characterful. He’s also one of opera’s finest actors, able to take hold of a text and run with it while tactfully avoiding any temptation to chew the scenery.
Two fine arias from Griselda follow – the cathartic Cara sposa by Conti and the grimly hubristic Vorresti col tuo pianto by Torri (hubris being considered a necessary precursor to a decent catharsis). This is a wonderful album for those looking for high-quality, off-the-beaten-track arias – try the one from Ariosti’s Coriolanus opera. Sabata is accompanied throughout by George Petrou and his fine Armonia Atenea, who bring this music to life with compelling attack, energy and enormous imagination.
The great climaxes, however, remain in the hands of the compositional big boys. Vivaldi’s Gelido in ogni vena from Il Farnace is chillingly done by both singer and orchestra – listen to what Petrou does to that harpsichord! – while the lyrical, valedictory Chiudetevi miei lumi from Handel’s Admeto is most movingly sung.
Tears, rage, blood running cold… it was Bach’s friend LF Hudemann who once opined, “Who would pay money to be confronted with a terrible affect [on stage], when one has reason enough to shiver and mourn for free in their own house?” Well, thanks to Sabata and this excellently engineered disc, we 21st-century couch potatoes can do just that.