Posts Tagged ‘René Jacobs’


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

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.

Review – Alessandro, Handel (Jacobs/Boulin/Poulenard/Nirouët/Varcoe/de Mey/Le Petite Bande/Kuijken. Reissue.

In Classical Music, Opera on May 23, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Recorded in February 1984 this reissue of Handel’s Alessandro is testament that there is nothing ‘new’ anymore about performances on original instruments. In the early 1980s this recording would have had the thrill of being original and authentic in every sense of the word. And Kuijken and Le Petite Bande were one of the earliest exponents of ‘authentic’ performance.

Indeed, looking at the cast list, it is interesting to see that René Jacobs began his career on the other side of the continuo section – on the stage.

Alessandro was first performed in 1726 and follows such stalwarts as Rinaldo, Tamerlano and Giulio Cesare, and precedes Alcina by a whole decade. It also has the historical envy of being the first opera that Handel wrote for Faustina Bordoni, later the wife of Johann Adolf Hasse. The other soprano soloist in the first performance was Francesca Cuzzoni, but alas it was not during Alessandro that they came to blows on the stage. If memory serves me correctly, an opera by Bononcini was accorded that honour.

So almost twenty years after it was recorded, how does Kuijken’s recording fare against more recent Baroque bands? Personally it could have been recorded yesterday so fresh, articulate and enjoyable is the performance, with not one weak element in the ensemble.

Vocally the soloists are incredibly strong. Jacobs sings the title role originally written for Senesino, with Sophie Boulin and Isabelle Poulenard singing the roles of Rossane/Bordoni and Lisaura/Cuzzoni respectively. From the beginning they deliver amazingly strong performances – vocally secure, beautifully sung and with a real sense of intelligence and understanding. René Jacobs countertenor has a beautifully rounded, bell-like tone across his range, coupled with strong technique. Boulin and Poulenard have distinct voices – clearly one of the reasons why they were originally cast – so that a listener interested in spotting which arias Handel specifically write for these two sparring sopranos can do so quite easily. Even the two other countertenors – Jean Nirouët and the delightful Guy de Mey – are easily distinguishable from one another.

The arias throughout are mainly da capo as expected, but it is interesting how far we have departed in terms of ornamentation in the returning da capo sections. There is virtually little ornamentation or embellishment on the return of the first section as opposed to some of the flights of fancy we hear these days in newer recordings and on stage. However if reports of the day are to be believed, neither interpretation is right nor wrong. Although I personally have to admit to a sense of relief when singers err on the side of intelligence.

Sigiswald Kuijken and Le Petite Bande – first formed in 1972 – play with great distinction and I quickly remembered that on the performance strengths of these early enthusiasts a whole dynasty of authentic orchestras has been built. The players play with great bite and spirit not only in the opening overture and the onstage sinfonia that follows immediately, but in all the arias.

And of the music itself? While Alessandro is no Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo or Alcina, it is a beautifully crafted opera, with almost all the arias – and not only those that have made it to recital discs – worthy of being heard more than once. Indeed the opera in its entirety bears repeated listening. Even the recitatives. It’s good to hear recitatives delivered with the clarity of diction and sense of momentum as they are here.

From the opening bars of the overture, Alessandro sets out to capture the attention of the listener. Not only are the arias delightful but there is also an attention to detail that encourages careful listening. For example the fast section of the overture with it’s delicate rhythmic bounce and then – most unexpectedly and already mentioned – a sinfonia complete with trumpets as the curtain rises onto Alessandro’s opening accompanied recitative.

In the arias for Alessandro – a role written for Senesino – we are not confronted by a leader in the same mould as Giulio Cesare, a role also created for this famous castrati. Instead for the most part the arias have an almost galant lilt to them. The first aria, Fra le stragi e fra le morti for example, with its delicate vocal divisions and trills, was clearly written to land the range of skills of Senesino immediately – a beauty of tone, agile runs and faultless trilling. His second of three arias in the First Act, Men fedele, e men costante, continues in the same vein, although the angular nature of the accompaniment leaves the listener in no doubt that this is ‘the King’ singing. The closing aria of the act is not the crowd raiser that is often expected at the end of acts in Baroque opera. The gentle strumming of the opening bars gives way once again to a feeling of galanterie. The sustained opening vocal line reinforces a sense of Alessandro as a benign (or Enlightened?) monarch. Indeed only in his final aria, Prove sono di grandezza perdonar l’alme soggette does Alessandro finally get the vocal fireworks more often associated with the leading man. However even here, there is no sense of grandeur – no trumpets, no timpani, simply a beautifully crafted aria left to stamp it’s own mark and underline Alessandro’s magnanimity once again before the closing duet.

The music that Handel wrote for Bordoni as Rossane made sure that she was given ample opportunity to display her vocal talents. Quantz via Charles Burney commented that she was an accomplished performer with a “flexible throat for divisions … so beautiful a shake … She sang adagios with great passion and expression … In short, she was born for singing and acting”. And within the short space of her two arias in the opening act this is quickly established and conveyed by Sophie Boulin. A clear, well articulated singer, Boulin clearly enjoys the role. Interestingly Un lusinghiero dolce pensiero bears a passing resemblance to Tornami a vagheggiar from Alcina, performed in 1735. Rossane’s beautiful arioso at the beginning of Act Two, with it’s plangent recorders, is in marked contrast to her preceding arias and is the first of three occasions where Handel introduces recorders in the entire opera. Tassile’s Sempre fido e disprezzato, beautifully sung by Jean Nirouët, sees their return and provides a gentle respite in the opera as a whole. Rossane’s only other aria in the middle act – Alla sua gabbia d’oro soul ritorna talor, was again clearly written to specification for Signora Bordoni’s vocal prowess, and particular for her vocal trademark – the repetition of a single note rapidly. Yet it is Brilla nell’alma un non inteso ancor dolce contento which is one of the highlights of the opera and most often heard on recital discs. Again this aria has been cut to fit Bordoni’s cloth and performed immaculately by Boulin, it is nothing short of a show-stopper.

Lisaura, ably sung by Isabelle Poulenard, has one less aria than her protagonist but the music that Handel wrote for Cuzzoni is as beautiful. Cuzzoni’s abilities were already well-known to the composer, for he had created the roles of Cleopatra and Rodelinda for her, and it was during Ottone that he threatened to throw her out of a window. To this extent, her arias feel more rounded than those for Bordoni as, in a sense, Handel was only just getting acquainted with the latter’s voice. No, più soffrir non voglio in the First Act clearly demonstrates this fact, and Poulenard sings out off the rapid divisions and leaps with clear relish. In a more pathetic vein is Che tirannia d’Amor, with its delicate suspensions and nicely balanced by her final aria in the second act, La cervetta nei lacci avvolta.

Unusually the duet towards the close of the first act – Placa l’alma, quieta il petto – is between Rossane and Lisaura, and is clearly inspired by the sixth Concerto Grosso from his Opus 3.

Yet it is in the closing duet, In generoso onor, that Handel provides the audience with a final surprise. After an as-expected opening, with the castrato and soprano entwined in thirds, sixths and suspensions, Handel veers into new territory marked with a languishing melisma for Alessandro and the arrival of recorders one final time. At this point Rossane joins the King and Lisaura for a trio before they are ultimately joined by choir and trumpets to supply a martial ending to the whole opera.

So while Alessandro is not on a par with perhaps Giulio Cesare or Alcina it is a beautifully crafted opera. More importantly it is, overall, a memorable reissue. My only gripe? No libretto enclosed.


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