Learning to Love Handel, Just in Time for ‘Semele’
By ANNE MIDGETTE
Published: September 13, 2006
“I didn’t like Handel,” said the mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, her large dark eyes widening to share a scurrilous secret.
The mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who makes her City Opera debut tonight.
Talk about bucking a trend. In today’s opera world, where Handel productions are sprouting up right and left, such a statement verges on the politically incorrect. It is all the more incongruous coming from a singer who has built her reputation on the foundation of early music; who has sung and recorded a good number of Handel operas; whose new Virgin Classics CD features Handel and Johann Adolf Hasse; and who is to make her New York City Opera debut tonight in “Semele,” a dramatic oratorio-cum-opera by, of course, Handel.
“I used to accept Handel operas because I knew I was missing something,” Ms. Genaux said, half laughing at herself. “Handel has a lot of virtuosity, but it always strikes me as being a little more instrumental than vocal. I always have to keep myself on a short leash when I’m singing Handel. I’ve never yet done a Handel where I can just let it all out. But I finally had my little raptus when I was doing Handel concerts in the spring. I finally like Handel. It’s so cool.”
And not a moment too soon. This season she is scheduled to do three new Handel roles.
Ms. Genaux, 37, exudes an exotic fascination. Her small face is dominated by wide eyes and a Julia Roberts smile that give her a distinctive, elfin beauty that she has parlayed into androgyny in stage portrayals of a couple of dozen men ? the trouser roles that are the bread and butter of a mezzo Baroque specialist.
Her voice is as striking as her looks: less striking, even, for the light, free upper notes or rich chocolaty lower ones than for the runs of coloratura that she releases with jackhammer speed, gunfire precision and the limpid continuity of spring raindrops.
She is also an international star, particularly in the early-music world. So it is notable that she has been away from New York for so long. In the late 1990’s she was practically a fixture in this city, staking out the bel canto terrain with annual appearances at the nearby Caramoor International Music Festival; a production of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” with the Opera Orchestra of New York; and an acclaimed debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, substituting for Vesselina Kasarova in Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia,” on a week’s notice.
Ms. Genaux subsequently went off to Europe and made her first solo album, “Arias for Farinelli,” featuring music written for the 18th century’s most famous castrato and winning accolades from every corner ? except, evidently, the Met, which thanked her with a couple more appearances in “Barbiere” and then silence. She did give New York recitals in 2002 and 2005, but she hasn’t appeared in New York opera for some time.
Ms. Genaux is philosophical about her absence from the Met. “There’s probably a bit of incompatibility involved,” she said. “I don’t have a huge voice. The productions that I have done in larger houses have not been the highest on my list in terms of personal enjoyment. I’m lucky in the Baroque that you usually get to do a new production, because it’s never been done before.” Like Hasse’s “Solimano.” Or Vivaldi’s “Bajazet.” Or even “Semele,” which City Opera is doing for the first time.