Ian Bostridge has been touring with a program devoted to music written for three 18th-century tenors: Francesco Borosini, who originated the roles of the defeated Sultan Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano (1724) and the usurper Grimoaldo in Rodelinda (1725); Annibale Fabri, who originated the roles of Dario in Vivaldi's L'incoronazione di Dario (1717) and Berengario in Handel's Lotario (1729); and John Beard, who performed in many of Handel's English-language oratorios.
Bostridge is a tasteful, elegant singer with a beautiful English tenor voice. That voice is soft-grained and sometimes inaudilble in the lower part of his range. Instead of cutting through the sound of the accompanying chamber orchestra Les Violins du Roy, his voice was often instead just part of the aural texture. His sound is not in the least Italianate, or—fatally for his performances of opera seria—passionate.
The mismatch between Bostridge's style and his chosen repertory was immediately apparent in the Bajazet arias he sang from Handel's Tamerlano and its model, Francesco Gasparini's Il Bajazet (1711/1719). The Sultan Bajazet is in emotional extremity: he has been defeated by his enemy Tamerlane, is imprisoned, and is only prevented from an honorable warrior's suicide because of his anguish over the fate of his daughter Asteria. None of that was apparent from Bostridge's smooth, restrained delivery of the text. That flatness of affect was especially notable in the aria from Handel's Giulio Cesare (in the 1725 revival the part of Sesto, originally written for soprano Margherita Durastanti, was rewritten for Borosini). From Bostridge's performance, you would never have guessed that Sesto's father has been brutally murdered and that in this aria Sesto vows to take bloody revenge.
Bostridge, a rather tall man, has a habit of tucking his chin into his chest when singing. We were sitting in the mezzanine—usually an ideal spot to hear vocal concerts—but it felt like we were overhearing a performance being given to the first row.
In the second half of the concert Bostridge performed an aria from Vivaldi's Arsilda (1716). Hearing his melancholic, pensive delivery, I thought that he had finally recognized that his style works best in arias requiring affetuoso, or tenderness. Then I read the translation of the aria text and discovered that the character Tamese is singing, "Hostile and cruel fate will see me on my country's throne triumphing over his humiliation." The disconnect between the aria's textual meaning and Bostridge's performance, in this as in the previous arias, was jarring.
I had thought that in general I preferred it when singers allowed the music to convey an aria's emotion, rather than attempting to telegraph it vocally. But Bostridge's bland performance of these fiery opera seria arias showed me the limitations of that approach.
I was thinking that Bostridge's fine, light voice is the sort that is best suited to English-language oratorio—something he probably hates to hear—when he proved me right by singing two arias from Handel's Hercules (1744) and the highlight of the concert, an encore of the sensuous "Softly rise, O southern breeze" from William Boyce's serenata Solomon (1743). Here is a version sung by Howard Crook with the Parley of Instruments, Roy Goodman conducting, from Hyperion CDA66378:
In concert the obbligato bassoon was played exquisitely by Les Violons du Roy's Nadina Mackie Jackson. In fact, the playing of this modern-instrument band employing period-instrument style under the direction of Bernard Labadie was simply brilliant throughout. It was a particular pleasure to hear Boyce's delightful Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, and afterwards the lovely encore from Solomon, a piece I had never heard before. I found myself wishing that Bostridge and Les Violons would return, but without the opera seria. Instead, how about an all-oratorio program?