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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.

Vocalympics 2012

In Baroque, Classical Music, Handel, Opera, Review, Vivaldi on June 2, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Review – Handel & The Rival Queens (St. John’s, Smith Square, Saturday 26 May 2012) and L’Olimpiade (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 28 May 2012)

Handel & The Rival Queens, Lufthansa Baroque Festival
Lisa Milne (Francesca Cuzzoni)
Mhairi Lawson (Faustina Bordoni)
Christopher Benjamin (Narrator)

Early Opera Company
Conductor – Christian Curnyn

L’Olimpiade
Megacle – Romina Basso
Licida – Delphine Galou
Aristea – Ruth Rosique
Argene – Luanda Siqueira
Clistene – Jeremy Ovenden
Aminta – Nicholas Spanos

Venice Baroque Opera
Conductor – Andrea Marcon

Two different concerts but both based around the idea of competition and rivalry.

Vocalympics in a sense and if you’ll pardon the simplistic play on words.

First up was a concert based on the legendary rivalry of Cuzzoni and Bordoni in Handel’s London. The idea of Handel’s “rival queens” is not new. There is a magnificent CD with Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott for example and I can’t believe that this is the first concert to emulate this moment in time. Indeed Handel himself wrote for both these prima donne in Alessandro as I have mentioned before.

Christian Curmyn and his exemplary Early Opera Company were joined by Mhairi Lawson and Lisa Milne, a late stand in for Rosemary Joshua who cancelled for personal reasons. And as narrator there was Christopher Benjamin. I was not wholly convinced by his contribution and while the anecdotes were amusing some seemed overlong.

However the quality of the singing and musicianship was incredibly high. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Mhairi Lawson and was slightly anxious as the last time her performance was marred by over indulgent vibrato. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised and enamoured of her performance as her voice had a bright and elegant sheen and she excelled in the virtuosity demands of the music, throwing out clean and accurate coloratura and embellishments throughout. The highlights were Brilla nell’ alma from Handel’s Alessandro and Son qual misera colomba from Hasse’s Cleofide. Lisa Milne valiantly and most ably stepped into the breach in place of Ms Joshua. Her richer and more resonant soprano was a perfect foil to Lawson’s and while her embellishments were not as sophisticated as her colleagues – perhaps as a result of being a late stand-in – hers was nevertheless a great performance with Che sento … Per pietà from Giulio Cesare and Porpora’s Miseri, sventurati, poveri affetti miei both displaying the polar opposites of her talent.

Yet – and quite rightly – the final duet proved the ultimate highlight of the concert as their voices melded together seamlessly.

Curmyn and his orchestra played with get poise and style. Tempos were easy and there was real bite in the strings and bar a few intonation problems in the Porpora, the oboists were suitably mellifluous. So all in all a very enjoyable evening.

And it was inevitable that the classical world would provide its own homage to the forthcoming Olympics. The Lufthansa Baroque Festival performed Vivaldi’s opera L’Olimpiade and Andrea Marcon and his Venice Baroque Orchestra’s contribution was a pastiche opera – which they have also recorded – using Metastasio’s same libretto as its basis. This libretto was first used in 1733 by Caldara as well as composers as diverse as Galuppi and Leo on the one hand to Mysliveček, Piccinni and Cherubini from the other end of the century. All featured here alongside Vivaldi, Gassmann, Jommelli and Traetta as well as a new composer to me, Davide Perez.

While in principle a clever idea, it tripped over a few hurdles on the night. First and foremost the orchestra led by Marcon, was ragged. Entries were disconcertingly imprecise, tuning was often awry and Marcon’s own tempi were more often than not rushed and hence unsympathetic to the singers. It was this that in my opinion was the root cause of the lower than expected quakity of the playing from the orchestra. This marred some of the more beautiful arias that evening and in particular Jommelli’s Lo sequitai felice where the oboes and French horns simply struggled as did mezzo soprano Romina Basso herself.

That was a shame as Signora Basso was one of two singers who clearly deserved Olympian laurels on the evening. Hers is a velvety and sonorous mezzo soprano voice and once I had become used to her slightly eccentric mannerisms it was a joy to sit back and listen to her. From her opening aria, Superbo di me stesso she commanded the stage and audience throughout the evening. Similarly the second mezzo Delphine Galou displayed both great technique and musicianship – her Mentre dormi by Vivaldi being the highlight of the evening.

The other singers were of varying success. Luanda Siqueira had a bright soprano but would have benefitted from not singing into her score for the majority of the evening while Ruth Rosique, albeit a convincing actress, had a tendency to shrillness in her upper register as she snatched the higher notes. Of the two men, Jeremy Ovenden was a fluid if bland tenor and Nicholas Spanos had gentle timbred pleasantly reedy countertenor but lacked sufficient support to project the bottom notes of his range.

However the one nagging question for me was this – had Marcon simply chosen too many composers? Like a child when confronted by too much choice in the candy shop, had he over-indulged in his choices over too great a span of time? As a result, stylistically his Vivaldi sounded like his Hasse which sounded like his Jommelli which sounded like his Cherubini. Indeed Cherubini complete with harpsichord and lute – strange. Perhaps a narrower range of composers would have left a more stylistically coherent performance at the end of the evening.

Yet it was an interesting experiment. I have purchased the CD and happily admit that I listen to it a great deal mainly because Marcon adopts a more measured pace which allows the beauty of the individual arias stand out, and in particular the aforementioned Jommelli. But at the end of the day it remains more a compilation of charming arias than a coherent pastiche opera seria.

Further Reading
1. An Invigorating Dasch Through Mozart. Enjoyment Assured.
2. Review – Prima Donna. Vivaldi Arias (Nathalie Stutzmann & Orfeo 55)
3. Handel With Care

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