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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.

Seared On The Soul

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 18, 2013 at 8:26 am

Review – Written on Skin (Royal Opera House, Saturday 16 March 2013)

The Protector – Christopher Purves
Agnès – Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1/The Boy – Bejun Mehta
Angel 2/Marie – Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3/John – Allan Clayton

Director – Katie Mitchell
Designs – Vicki Mortimer
Lighting Design – Jon Clark

Composer/Conductor – George Benjamin

It isn’t very often that a performance is so brilliant – the music, the singing and the production – that it feels like a privilege to have been present.

Written On Skin by George Benjamin at the Royal Opera House felt precisely like that.

A privilege.

I am often wary of going to see new opera, as often they are a miserable marriage of indistinct music and uninspired production. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole was as brash musically as it was directorially and didn’t leave any impression except of being pummeled in your seat. ENO’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was – and I probably think this is heresy to say so – the last new opera that I enjoyed. Barry has an interesting musical language and the production by Richard Jones and Ultz was both visually smart and emotionally intelligent.

Written on Skin, from the opening bars to the drop of the final curtain, was simply gripping and packed an emotional punch that has stayed with me and I would guess quite a few others who attended.

George Benjamin studied with Olivier Messiaen and his influence is keenly felt as the basis of the timbre and sound world that Benjamin creates. But at the same time, in the vocal writing is very much heard the influence of his other teacher, Alexander Goehr. At times there were distinct echoes of Arianna and Promised End, not only in the crafting of the vocal lines but also in the use of rhythm and the structure of the vocal lines.

But Benjamin’s musical language has taken these influences and melded them with his own style. Written on Skin represents a direct evolution from his chamber opera Into The Little Hill in the finesse of the vocal writing, the orchestration and the relationship between the two. And Benjamin is a skillful orchestrator, at times almost Dutilleaux-esque in his delicacy but capable being unleashed in a frenzy when required. Indeed those moments were all the more effective for the suddenness of their arrival and his ability to retreat from them as suddenly.

And the collage of sound created by Benjamin propels the music forward through every scene. From The Protector’s opening boastful scene, as lyrical as his wealth is bountiful to the acceleration from sensuality to sexual release in the music between Agnès and The Boy to the suffocating tension of the closing scene, Benjamin’s tight control of orchestral timbre and the mesh of rhythm is incredible.

And his sensitivity in terms of the vocal lines is brilliant. Each phrase is so carefully crafted to ensure that the words are clear with the alternation from almost Sprechstimme to lyricism seamlessly effective.

And if the music is remarkable then Benjamin was fortunate enough to be able to write for a highly distinguished cast of singers.

I cannot believe that this is Barbara Hannigan’s debut at Covent Garden. A leading interpreter of contemporary classical music – listen for example to her performance of De Vincent à Theo – it was a surprise to read that she had not performed on stage before. I hope that this is the start of a long and successful relationship with the company. As Agnès her bright soprano glided through the music effortlessly – not only rapt and ethereal but also dark and sonorous, capturing the wife’s need for freedom from a lifeless and loveless marriage. I don’t think it was love that she wanted – as witnessed by the brutal nature of her sexual clinch with The Boy – but rather escape. The scene with The Protector at the beginning of the Part Two when she attempted to seduce him demonstrated the wide range of colours that Hannigan could bring to her singing. From the almost ‘dead’ timbre as The Protector awakes to her increasing attempts to provoke a reaction from him was exhilarating. And her final scene was simply incredible.

And as The Protector, Christopher Purves was superb. I have already noted his vocal lyricism but it was also his ability to cast his voice from whisper to full-throated bellowing that was amazing and indeed it was with a whisper that he was most threatening. His diction was – as with the rest of the ensemble – crystal clear and again he was able to bend and colour his voice with great skill.

I haven’t seen Bejun Mehta sing live since Orlando at Covent Garden a good many years ago and I hope to rectify that when he tours shortly. Casting The Angel as a countertenor was inspired. The other-worldly, crystalline timbre of his voice was in sharp relief to the other main protagonists, creating a real sense of tension in the vocal colouring and timbre of the music.

And both Victoria Simmonds and Allan Clayton – the latter an excellent Castor in ENO’s production last year – were outstanding throughout.

The orchestra, conducted by George Benjamin himself, acquitted themselves with great distinction. Unusually for a new opera, there was no sense at any time that they were not completely and confidently immersed in the music written by Benjamin.

Martin Crimp’s libretto was eloquent with no word extraneous to plot or music. The language was taut yet had a musicality to it that rendered it perfectly to the music.

And if the standard of the music making was incredibly high, the direction and production itself was its match.

I admire Katie Mitchell’s work – her Jephtha is one of the strongest interpretations of any Handel that I have seen – but I was not convinced by her After Dido for ENO. That production was a distraction from the music and the twentieth century reinterpretation added a layer upon Purcell’s music that was not needed.

But for Written on Skin – again working with Vicki Mortimer – Mitchell developed the same idea but with greater clarity and narrative intent. The interaction between past and present was so fluidly done that it was never distracting except when it needed to be an intervention as part of the unfolding drama. The upper laboratory, for example – where the assistants unwrapped the items from the past for use in the story – was gracefully done and at no point was there any sense that something was being done for the sake of it. Considering the amount of activity and movement in the opera, there was an incredible sense of stillness and simplicity about the entire production. Again the closing scene’s use of slow motion – so often a miscalculation in stage productions – was achingly tense in its delivery.

It’s rare to leave a performance and not think of something that didn’t quite gel. But on this occasion, even sleeping on it, hasn’t changed my initial impression.

Benjamin’s Written on Skin and this production is one of the best productions – modern or otherwise – that I have seen in a long time. This production is part of Covent Garden’s ambitious plans to stage fifteen new works between now and 2020 and it bodes well for the future.

The music, the singing and the production came together like a veritable medieval (holy) trinity. Indeed I didn’t have the appetite to listen to anything upon leaving the performance. A rare occurrence for me.

It might now be sold out for the final two performances but BBC Four and Opus Arté were in on Saturday night to film it.

Written on Skin is not something to be missed.

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