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Countertenorism

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on January 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Review:
Arias for Caffarelli (Franco Fagioli, Il Pomo d’Oro, Ricardo Minasi)
Arias for Farinelli (Philippe Jaroussky, Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon)
Che puro ciel (Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, René Jacobs)

It’s almost like being back in the Eighteenth Century when castrati dominated both stages and headlines. Today there seems to be a proliferation of countertenors and there always seems to be a new recital disc being released.

Here are three very different – but inevitably connected – recitals by three of the current leading countertenors performing today. Two programme their recitals around famous Eighteenth Century castrati while Bejun Mehta builds his recital on a more academic approach.

Franco Fagioli takes as his muse the castrato Caffarelli on the heels of David Hansen’s excellent and similarly inspired recital. The two castrati were contemporaries and in the and in the eyes of some, rivals. Needless to say both were incredibly talented, inspiring composers to write some of their most beautiful or dazzling music. But where Farinelli was a ‘soprano’, Caffarelli was perceived to be more of a mezzo. And where the former was renowned for his kindness and grace, the latter didn’t seem to endear himself much to either singers or composer, patrons of the public.

But judging from the music Caffarelli was in possession of an incredible voice – wide in range and technically impressive. Indeed Grimm commented that his voice was so ‘angelic’ that even those “less sensible to music would find it hard to resist”.

So it’s disappointing that while Fagioli turns in some proficient performances, overall his singing lacks a sense of depth and definition. There are times when Fagioli resembles no one more than Cecilia Bartoli in the smoothness – indeed over-smoothness with little or no bite – in tone and timbre particularly in his delivery of coloratura.

That is not to say that his singing is anything less that technically secure. Throughout the recital in arias such as Hasse’s Fra l’orror della tempesta, Vinci’s In braccio a mille furie or Porpora’s Passagier che sulla sponde he throws off the coloratura with ease. And in the slower numbers while he does produce some very fine legato singing maintaining breath control is sometimes a challenge.

Ultimately there is a wont of vocal texture and colour, of piquancy that adds that unique timbre of other countertenors like the others reviewed here as well as David Hansen and Iestyn Davies.

However where Fagioli recital does stand out is in the arias by ‘almost unknowns’ and the playing of the orchestral ensemble. Like Joyce DiDonato in her excellent Drama Queens recital, Fagioli shines a light on composer who – despite their obscurity now – clearly had talent. A favourite of mine is Carfaro’s Rendimi pìu sereno. A Galant-style gem.

And the playing of Il Pomo d’Oro under Ricardo Minasi is magnificent – it has a bite and a vivacity to it that is infectious. Listen for example to their playing in In braccio a mille furie and you can hear the fury and swagger in their playing. And the soloists – for example the oboist in Pergolesi’s Lieto così talvolta – is simply ravishing. Indeed it is the playing of the ensemble that has made me return to this recital more than Fagioli’s singing.

Philippe Jaroussky – always a favourite performer of mine – has also opted for a recital built around one castrato and like David Hansen, he has chosen Farinelli. But he has refined it even further by focusing on a single composer – Nicola Porpora, teacher of both Farinelli and Caffarelli.

In complete contrast to the previous recital, Philippe Jaroussky’s performances are beautiful, confident and musically impressive. A criticism often leveled at composers of this period was the sheer length of the arias they composed all but stopped any sense of dramatic flow of the opera itself. Metastasian principles, the da capo format as well as that the fact that they were more often than not written to showcase the talents of specific singers made this inevitable. But quite frankly the level of inspiration in these arias and the high standards of musicianship personally negates this criticism.

As well as arias, Jaroussky performs a couple of duets with Cecilia Bartoli that only further reinforces the Bartoli-Fagioli resemblance and sharp difference between their vocal timbres. Placidetti zeffiretti with its delicate orchestration and limpid imitative vocal lines is simply affecting and the two soloists are meld their voices beautifully especially as their voices float unaccompanied in their improvisation just before the final cadence. The second duet – La gioia ch’io sento – is all together a more joyous – even cheeky – number with its delicate vocal and violin figurations and the middle section with its sudden dip into the minor demonstrates the skill of Porpora’s writing.

And clearly the arias alternative between arie di bravura and slower numbers. In the faster numbers Jaroussky displays an enviable ability to cut right through the coloratura while ensuring that each individual note of each run is clearly articulated. But his talent in singing the most legato of lines – even in these faster arias – is also brought to the fore as in the opening aria, Mira in cielo. It also highlights his ability to colour both individual notes and whole phrases both in terms of dynamic control as well as employing subtle mezzo voce techniques. Come nave in ria tempesta continues to display Jaroussky’s bravura technique but it is Nell’intendere il mio bene which is the album’s coloratura tour de force.

Of all the slower arias it is Alto Giove that shows Jaroussky at his best and comes incredibly close to replacing Simone Kermes’ performance of this – Porpora’s most beautiful – aria. His stunning technique – both in terms of breath control and dynamic range makes this preghiera the highlight of the disc. However arias such as Si pietoso il tu labbro and Nel già bramoso petto demonstrate that Porpora was a master of the more ‘troubled’ affections of his characters.

The lilting siciliana of Le limpid’onde, with its flute and oboes adding depth to the orchestral texture, shows Porpora at his pastoral best. And above this, the countertenor weaves the most beautiful legato vocal line.

With the plangent oboe solo of Orfeo’s Sente del mio martir, you really can feel the torment of the singer who enters masterfully and ethereally. And Dall’amor più sventurato shows that Porpora could keep up with the more ‘modern’ Galant style that was quickly gaining a foothold in the operatic world.

And if you purchase the recital on iTunes it seems that you get a twelfth aria – and the only one with an accompagnato opening. Oh Dio! Chi sa qual sorte … Giusto amor. Taken from the serenata Gli orti esperidi, Porpora underpins the delicate vocal line with a fine cello obbligato.

It’s a fitting end to a remarkable recital disc that demonstrates that Jaroussky remains pre-eminent among his countertenor peers. And throughout and never less than expected, the Venice Baroque Orchestra led by Andrea Marcon provide bright, crisp and incisive accompaniments.

The final disc – by Bejun Mehta – takes a more ‘academic’ path. Taking as their starting point the operatic reforms instigated by Gluck and his some-time librettist Calzabigi, Mehta and Jacobs explore the search for a greater ‘naturalism’ in opera, reflecting polite Eighteen Century society’s search – all be it most of the time heavily sanitized – for the same thing. Think Marie Antoinette and her ‘farm’ at La Petite Trianon for example.

Featuring extracts from Hasse, Traetta , JC Bach and Mozart, it inevitably opens with Che puro ciel from Gluck’s Orfeo. Personally there is no greater evocation in this period of a desire to get ‘back to nature’. The orchestration alone must have made the chattering audience sit up and listen. But the vocal line – almost conversational and certainly more declamatory than the audience would have been used to – seals this as possibly one of the most beautiful ‘arias’ of the period.

The arias drawn from his opera Ezio, written in 1750 and then revised post Orfeo in 1763 don’t quite achieve the same sublimity of the previous piece. Pensa a serbarmi – an elegant Galant minuet – demonstrates Gluck’s skill at creating emotional momentum through the carefully built phrasing, but even he can’t avoid gentle coloratura to underline the emotional weight of the text. And Se il fulmine sospendi cannot escape the fact it is it to all intents and purposes your typical Metastasian simile aria albeit a beautifully crafted one.

Similarly the single contributions from Hasse and JC Bach hint at a move to a new style but not necessarily ‘naturalism’. The former’s Dei di Roma, ah perdonate! from Il trionfo di Clelia is a belt-and-braces Hasse aria for example. And the same can be said of JC Bach’s accompagnato No, che non ha la sorte … Vo solcando un mar crudele from Artaserse. An emotive recitative – foreshadowing those written by Mozart in his own opera serie – leads into a thundering aria with roulades aplenty, again hinting at influences on the younger Mozart.

With the selections from Ascanio in Alba and Mitridate, the brilliance and new sense of excitement that Mozart breathed into this dying genre are evident.

Vadasi … Già dagli occhi il veto é tolto from Mitridate, written when Mozart was 14 is remarkable for its musical and emotional eloquence both in terms of the orchestral writing and colour and the simplicity of the vocal line . Even at that tender age, Mozart could write music of such grace and elegance compared to those that had either preceded him or were his older contemporaries.

Perché tacer degg’io? Caro, lontano ancora from Ascanio in Alba was written a year later and show quickly Mozart’s musical style was developing, culminating in Lucio Silla only another year on in 1772. The accompagnato explores a gamut of emotions and resolve with the music echoing the character’s changing emotional state. And while the ensuing aria might lapse into a typical da capo aria it’s the way Mozart handles both the vocal line and the orchestral writing that against sets it above similar arias by JC Bach and Hasse.

And yet the most thrilling performances on the disc are those of Traetta – in my opinion a sadly neglected composer. The extracts from Antigona and Ifigenia in Tauride demonstrate the composer’s talent at creating dramatic tableaux. Take Antigona for example, written for Catherine The Great in 1772. The fury of the orchestra in Ah, se lo vedi piangere and the urgency of the vocal line not only hints at Gluck but in some ways look forward to Mozart’s Idomeneo. The gentility of Ah, sì, da te dipende with its graceful writing for flutes, has an almost Mozartian (granted early) lilt to it. Indeed I would hazard that it could easily be inserted into any Mozart opera seria and most people wouldn’t notice.

But it’s Dormi Oreste! that is the real jewel on this disc. Written in the same year as Gluck’s Ezio was revised and only a year after Orfeo it’s an amazing piece of writing – vocally, chorally and orchestrally.

The choral opening definitely harks back to Gluck and a more ‘pastoral feel’ but how quickly this is dismissed. The skills of the choral writing and the underpinning orchestral palette – especially at the section “Vendetta” – is thrilling and the soloist’s first entry pares back both sound and colour with dramatic effect before the chorus interrupt again. The ‘middle” section – an aria with cello obbligato is nothing less than noble – with an emphasis on a more declamatory style, with any coloratura such as it is at secondary to the quest for emotional impact. The chorus returns only to be stopped in its tracks by the plaintive cries of the soloist before finally it hurtles to its thrilling conclusion.

On the disc, nothing more than Dormi Oreste! typifies the quest for ‘naturalism’. which lies at the heart of this incredible recital.

Someone needs to record Ifigenia in Tauride immediately.

Central to the success of this very carefully constructed recital – which strikes the perfect balance between academic curiosity and music making of an incredible standard – is Bejun Mehta, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and René Jacobs. Mehta – who’s dusky countertenor is in fine form throughout, thrilling in his coloratura as much as in his elegant and measured legato singing, blending colour and dynamics together with the greatest skill – might be the vocal focus throughout but the level of musicianship, the enthusiasm of each and every performance are as much to the credit of the Akademie players and chorus and René Jacobs.

If you had to choose just one disc to listen to from these three – and pace Philippe – it would have to be this recital. It’s thrilling. It’s intelligent. And it reveals what an underrated genius Traetta truly is.

An Invigorating Dasch Through Mozart. Enjoyment Assured.

In Classical Music, Mozart, Opera, Review on March 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Review – Mozart Arias. Annette Dasch, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin & Marc Piollet

Buy this CD. It’s as simple as that. In the plethora of recital CDs by new and up-and-coming singers that quite literally litter the racks, Annette Dasch’s recital disc of Moart arias stands out.

I was fortunate enough to stumble on this CD while browsing the rather excellent CD shop at the Staatsoper Wien while waiting to attend a rather marvellous performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Having her recording of arias by various composers for the character of Armida led me to grab this CD.

Ms Dasch has a bright and agile soprano of which she displays great control in terms of dynamics and graceful fluidity. Firm and even throughout her range she also is in possession of a remarkable interpretative intelligence in each and every aria. There’s no excessive ornamentation and more to the point her own small interpretive decorative gestures around unexpected phrases delight rather than irritate Dove sono is a case in point for example.

And not only is her diction faultless but she puts meaning behind the text itself. Listen to her performance of the recitative of E Susanna non vien for example. Frustration, then hesitation then anger are all most effectively conveyed.

The recital disc covers all the major Mozart operas plus Zaide’s, Il Re Pastore and Lucio Silla and as much as possible the arias as grouped with respect to the operas they are from. And for the first time in a long time it was a joy – and I mean a joy – to revisit these old numbers. Ms Dasch breathes real life and honest interpretation into every single track.

The first three tracks are from Le Nozze di Figaro. Opening with Porgi Amor is really a make-or-break decision – sublimely beautiful but notoriously difficult to carry off, get it wrong and it can marr the entire recital. No worries here however as Ms Dasch – sensitively accompanied by the Akademie für Alte Musik – makes her musical intention clear – a beautifully poised, intelligent and faultless performance that sets the standard for the rest of the disc.

And that standard doesn’t slip.

Rune Sanft mein Holdens Leben with its oboe obbligato is delicately spun out with those vocal flourishes that I mentioned earlier adding to – rather than distracting from – the melody that Mozart rolls out. And there’s no hint of strain as Ms Dasch leaps on ‘Leben’ as is sometimes the case. Piollet takes the mid-section at quite a canter but doesn’t sacrifice the overall musical intelligence of this performance which is somewhat heightened with the return opening section and a sense of ‘preghiera’ in terms of Ms Dasch’s dynamic control.

Each and every aria is so beautifully performed it would be easy to write about each and every one but I sense that listening to the disc without too much commentary would be best.

But watch out for the vocal decorations in L’amerò costante for example; revel in the drama she unfolds in In quali ecessi … Mi tradi and how she effortlessly manages Donna Elvira’s sweeping phrases. Her Donna Anna is also a marvel. After a poignantly delivered recitative, her Non mi dir is both eloquent and dignified and Ms Dasch defies challenging tessitura and sails through the coloratura with incredible ease.

Non più di fiori from La clemenza di Tito and the two arias from Così fan tutte that follow throw into bold relief the rich and even tone that Ms Dasch has from her gleaming top notes to her resonant lower register. And in Fiordiligi’s two arias Come Scoglio and – for me the highlight of the entire disc – Per Pieta this incredible range is married with faultless technique as she flings off the coloratura with precise abandon. And hats off to the dexterous French horn player.

Ach, Ich Fühl’s brisker-than-normally expected pace blows cobwebs off what can sometimes seem a dirge with most singers. Again more ‘preghiera’ that hapless heroine formats Dasch and the same can be said for Giunia’s aria Fra i pensieri più funesti from Lucio Silla where the Akademie’s plangent wind sonorities are most effective in the opening section.

And no more fitting an end to a musically meticulous recital than A fuggi il traditor. The faux Baroque mannerisms are attacked with relish by the orchestra as Ms Dasch for one final time ratchets up the sense of dramatic to deliver an ovation-inducing Donna Elvira.

Bloody marvellous.

Throughout the soprano is brilliantly supported by Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under the direction Marc Piollet. This is authentic instrument playing of the highest standard. Alongside the gutsy string playing – you can almost feel the players digging into the music at some points – I was once again reminded of a sense of ‘wind band’ in the luminous playing of the wind and brass sections. Piollet drew an amazing sound from all the players and directed the entire ensemble and Ms Dasch with great sensitivity and understanding through some of Mozart’s most famous aria. It was almost as if I was hearing them for the very first time.

And one thing that keeps turning over in my mind every time I listen to this disc – and I have returned to it repeatedly? That Ms Dasch displays the same innate musical intelligence and clear joy of singing this music as Ms Edda Moser.

I have made it a general rule never to travel abroad for Mozart except in exceptional circumstances. Ms Dasch is about to put a pleasurable strain on my finances methinks.

I can’t recommend this recital enough. Enjoyment assured.

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