Opera's latest high hope

Glyndebourne is banking on the voice of Robin Blaze for its new production of Handel's Rodelinda
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The Independent Culture

Lucky Glyndebourne. Not only has it lined up James Rutherford as Figaro for its current Touring Opera production; but for Handel's Rodelinda it has achieved the unthinkable, signing a young British countertenor who may yet prove a match for Andreas Scholl, who was acclaimed at Glyndebourne three years ago in the role of the exiled Lombard king, Bertarido.

Robin Blaze is one of those singers who seems to be in love with singing, and who makes you fall in love with it, too. Whatever music he is performing – Bach, Purcell, or some unknown Jacobean composer whom he and his regular lute accompanist, Elizabeth Kenny, have rediscovered – he gets you to feel it's the greatest thing since sliced bread. He cherishes every phrase. His pure control brings seemingly effortless release. He seems to breathe the spirit of any role he undertakes.

Take Rodelinda, first performed in 1725, which opens at Glyndebourne tomorrow night before touring next month. He first performed the role at last summer's Göttingen Festival under Nicholas McGegan.

"You just can't help being knocked out by Bertarido's arias – they're some of the best music you'll ever hear written for an alto voice," he says. "They're packed with emotion. Handel has succeeded in making him utterly believable as a character – you can relate to him, you don't find yourself thinking, 'That's a bit far-fetched, he wouldn't actually behave like that.'"

Bertarido, the deposed king, secretly returns from Hungary when everyone else believes him dead. His wife Rodelinda (Emma Bell) is now living at the court of the usurper Grimoaldo (Stephen Rooke), who is abetted by his henchman Garibaldo (Jonathan Best) and Bertarido's sister Eduige (Jean Rigby).

"Really, he returns not for the throne but for his wife, Rodelinda," Blaze explains. "He comes on and he sings this great elegiac aria, 'Dove sei?', which encapsulates the idea that, even though he's lost all his inheritance, what's most important to him is coming back for her."

Bertarido constantly lurches between hope and despair. At one point he thinks Rodelinda is going to abandon him and marry Grimoaldo. He sings this gut-wrenching aria about betrayal, which makes you believe in the passion of their marriage. And when, by a typically Handelian twist, everyone is reconciled, he rounds off with this triumphant victory aria, "Vivi tiranno".

"When he's captured and sentenced to death, he and Rodelinda are sing this absolutely heartrending duet, 'Io t'abbraccio'; it's their last embrace before he is hauled off to certain death, and it's full of this sense that they're being torn apart and can't bring themselves to say this last goodbye. Handel seizes on musical 'affect' to generate an incredible tension – whole lines of dissonances and suspensions, plus solo lines in the strings. He brings the voices closer and closer together, and it has this incredibly wrenching feeling. I haven't met anyone who hasn't been really moved by it; it's so powerful, it just sings itself. And Emanuelle Haïm [the conductor] has done loads of work with the cast to build up some ornaments that will show off the best part of the voice."

Like Ian Bostridge, Blaze has the aura of one who is eternally young (he's now 28). He was born in Shadwell, near Leeds (his father is a golf professional) and first sang while a junior at Leeds Grammar School. "My music teacher, Stephen Lomas, started a choir to try to expand his pupils' musical horizons. Most performers can usually pinpoint one person who really switched them on to music; Stephen did that for me."

Lomas did more than that: "When I was nine or 10, he took a group of us to Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at Leeds' Grand Theatre. James Bowman was singing Oberon. It was probably the first time I'd ever heard a countertenor voice – or even an opera. I wasn't too sure about those heavily produced sopranos and tenors – vibrato can be slightly unnerving if you're not used to it. But James dominated through the sheer colour of his sound and his personality. For me, at that impressionable age, it was absolutely stunning."

Blaze later sang as a chorister at Magdalen College, Oxford under John Harper. "I began late, aged 10 or 11. My choir was singing Evensong at Magdalen, and by sheer luck the Dean of Divinity, Brian Findlay, heard me do a relatively insignificant solo, and fixed for me to have a voice trial." Singing in Magdalen was "an incredibly immersive experience".

He won a scholarship to Uppingham as a pianist and flautist, and studied Classics. After a year as a boy treble ("It's quite bewildering to come out of a boys-only line-up and suddenly find you're sat next to an 18-year-old girl!") he became "a mediocre tenor" for a bit. But then his closest friend, Andrew Smith (now organist of St Peter's, Eaton Square), urged him to take up singing alto; the pair still occasionally give recitals together.

Uppingham supplied the key. "As a treble, I was coached by Ralph Allwood. Later, when I announced I wanted to apply for a countertenor choral scholarship, they did a search and got John Whitworth, who was Alfred Deller's former duet partner on that famous "Sound the Trumpet" recording, and just happened to be teaching locally in Leicester, to teach me. That was incredibly fortunate – to study with a colleague of Deller.

"At first, John would turn up just to teach me. Then, as it became more accepted, about four or five sang counter-tenor. Since then Uppingham has had some great countertenors who've gone on to Oxbridge."

At Magdalen "David Lowe, who now teaches at the Royal Academy, taught the choral scholars. He was fantastic at working with young singers – he knows how not to push voices too much, how to open them out a bit and let them find their feet.

"For me, a countertenor has to sound natural, not like hearing someone sing falsetto. You should feel that's the sound they should be making. Relaxation plays a huge part. If there's excessive tension, it sounds like a false timbre. We tend to think of 'laserbeam-quality' altos, and that can be very beautiful, but in textures rather than in solo work. As a countertenor you're working with a pretty fragile, small part of the voice – you resonate on the edges of the vocal cords, so a lot of the volume and power has to come from internal resonances, not from applying pressure, or the voice will easily crack. Though one might use the baritone register sparingly in opera, for dramatic effect – on Bertarido's words 'Confusa' and 'tiranno', for instance.

"Hopefully, the days of infighting over countertenor vs mezzo are over. When you see and hear, say, Sarah Connolly in a male role at ENO – what a great singer – she's utterly convincing. That's not to say you don't sometimes want to hear a countertenor as well. They just bring different qualities."

'Rodelinda' runs at Glyndebourne (01273 813813) to 26 Oct, then touring. Robin Blaze recital, Wigmore Hall, London W1, 10 Nov, 7.30pm