Vesselina Kasarova; Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis (RCA Red Seal/Sony 88697318712)

30 October 2008 3.5 stars

Kasarova's HandelIn a recent interview with me about her current appearances in Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova explained that Handel is a relatively new discovery for her, having spent the early part of her career devoted to Mozart and bel canto music.

Now she's making up for it big time, with several Handel roles in her repertoire and now this new disc, Sento Brillar. The arias come from five operas and were all written for or sung by Carestini. It's surely a bit misleading to call the disc 'Arias for Carestini' when it has arias from Ottone, which was composed for Senesino, even though Carestini sang it in a major revival in 1733. Il pastor fido was also a work that Carestini only sang in revival, though one of the two arias on the disc was written specially for him. The rest of the recital consists solely of music written for Carestini, however, and is a reminder of what a massive domination over the operatic stage the castrati had in Handel's day.

Masterworks like Alcina and Ariodante were composed with this special voice type in mind, and Kasarova's excellent performances do full credit to all the works, both familiar and otherwise. The recital gets off to a good start with two arias from Ottone, re di Germania (HWV 15), which was first performed in 1723. The tragic turn of the words to 'Dove sei' (Where are you, sweet love of my life?) is ideal for Kasarova's dramatic skills, while the vigour of the vengeance aria 'Un disprezzato affetto' is likewise the perfect showcase for a singing actress.

Occasionally, the differences between the mezzo and castrato voices are rather too apparent: the high passagework in 'Con l'ali di constanza' from Ariodante is astoundingly secure and precise, but at times it lies too low for Kasarova. I must say that on the whole, I prefer the soprano end of her voice, which is truly beautiful, to the contralto register, which is less evenly produced. The same problem occurs in 'Scherza, infida' and 'Numi!' from the same opera, but the dicey patches are very momentary and Kasarova's association with the title character seems firmly bonded.

Convincing, too, are the two arias from Alcina, Ruggiero's expression of love in 'Mi lusinga il dolce affetto' and the pastoral scene in 'Verdi prati, selve amene'. Some will find Kasarova's use of vibrato excessive – throughout the disc, she brings the Romantic abandon of the nineteenth century to music that is often performed in a more contained way by period specialists – but with such seductive tone and such a passionate interpretation of the words, there is much to enjoy about her approach.

It's great, too, to have lesser known operas represented on the album. Arianna in Creta (HWV 32), for instance, seems on this evidence to be the product of intense inspiration, and the way Kasarova spins the line in 'Sol ristoro di mortali' is most attractive. Teseo's 'Bella sorge la speranza' is one of the jolliest tracks on the disc, and again Kasarova's voice is shown at its best at the top, even though for me the way she bends the tuning in some lines – undoubtedly on purpose – is slightly irritating rather than expressive. Still, with a recording completed by well-sung arias from another undeserving rarity, Il pastor fido, and highly musical playing from Il Complesso Barocco under Alan Curtis, nobody could be seriously disappointed.

By Dominic McHugh

Read an interview with Vesselina Kasarova about this recording here.