Catalan good guy brings baroque bad boys to Tassie with spectacular results.

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart

March 29, 2014

For a man whose PR blurb speaks of Handel’s ‘bad boys’ and whose publicity shot shows him wielding a leather bound fist, Xavier Sabata’s appearance on the Federation Concert Hall platform came as quite a contrast. Beaming from ear to ear and sporting a beautifully tailored suit, he exuded immediate warmth and a ‘glad to be here’ bonhomie that must have won over some in the audience before he’d even opened his mouth.

The Catalan countertenor – a William Christie protégé – has been making quite a name for himself of late with an acclaimed Handel disc and a host of operatic critical plaudits. Knowing a singer from recordings and hearing him or her in the flesh, though, is always one of those moments. Will it be a big voice? Can he carry off live what the engineers might have tightened up in the studio? In the case of Xavier (pronounced 'shavié' by the way) Sabata, it’s an unequivocal “yes”.

One of the lower voices on the countertenor scene (a contralto, in the Senesino mould), Sabata’s tone is exceptionally rich and warm. It’s soft grained, but with plenty of balls (if you’ll pardon the pun) to back it up. He’s a man with excellent resonating cavities and he’s not afraid to use them, capable of producing a glorious stream of honeyed notes. In short, it’s a golden instrument. Even better, he uses every word of every shapely phrase, at times chewing up the concert platform as he inhabits each character he assumes.

Beginning with his trademark Handelian villains, he romped through Tamerlano’s Vo’ dar pace a un alma altiera, before fixing his audience with a glare and launching into Nella terra in ciel, the treacherous Gernando’s aria from Faramondo – in many ways one of Handel’s most underrated operas. His articulation in both was spot on and he wasn’t afraid to make use of vocal runs to aid and abet characterisation.

Despite his ability to summon up the necessary fireworks, Sabata was perhaps at his finest in the slow arias. He gave us a lovely bonus in Ottone’s lengthy and moving Voi che udite il mio lamento from Agrippina, Handel’s 1709 Venetian success. Showing his dramatic credentials in the recit, which runs a remarkable emotional gamut all on its own, Sabata made the long-breathed aria itself a ravishing affair. The plaintive Vibra cortesa amor from Alessandro similarly showed off his excellent lower register (not every countertenor’s strongest suit). Vivaldi’s Sovvente il sole was most beautifully put across, aided by Julia Fredersdorff’s obligato violin.

Tamerlano’s A dispetto d’un volto ingrate, one of those foot-tapping showcase arias, was full of cocky self-confidence and oozed sarcastic villainy while Tolomeo’s Domerò la tua fierezza from Giulio Cesare was pure malice and spite, Sabata rolling every word around his mouth with evident relish and delivering one spectacularly placed chest note. Tu spietato non farai from Ifigenia in Aulide closed his program with an appropriate display of pyrotechnics, tastefully decorated in the da capo.

Sabata was backed by the Orchestra of the Antipodes under Hobart Baroque’s dynamic Musical Director, Erin Helyard. The orchestra was on excellent form throughout, exhibiting none of the tuning problems of the previous evening (perhaps the Theatre Royal acoustic was partially to blame). The 16 players, clearly enjoying matters no end, interspersed the recital with some crisp sinfonias by Vivaldi and one of Albinoni’s charming double oboe concertos. Helyard generated much excitement, using an imaginative mix of harpsichord and chamber organ, and with immaculately handled crescendi and swells matched the singer note for note.

Xavier Sabata’s latest project sees him taking the lead in Naïve’s new recording of Handel’s Tamerlano. On this showing, I can see a copy winging its way to Australia very soon with my name on it.