FRANCESCO BIANCHI (1752 – 1810), LUIGI CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842), DOMENICO CIMAROSA (1749 – 1801), JOHANN SIMON MAYR (1763 – 1845), JOSEF MYSLIVEČEK (1737 – 1781), GAETANO PUGNANI (1731 – 1798), GIUSEPPE SARTI (1729 – 1802), and NICCOLÒ ANTONIO ZINGARELLI (1752 – 1837): Arias for Luigi Marchesi – The Great Castrato of the Napoleonic Era—Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Stile Galante; Stefano Aresi, conductor [Recorded in Sala Piatti, Bergamo, Italy, 5 – 9 April 2015; Glossa GCD 923505; 1 CD, 71:45; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnlineHD, fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
If, a popular conceit being accepted as a valid analogy, castrati were the Rock stars of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Luigi Marchesi was surely the Mick Jagger of his time. Born in Milan twenty-four years before the 1778 inauguration of Teatro alla Scala established his native city as an epicenter on the operatic fault line spanning continental Europe, Marchesi’s 1773 operatic début in Rome was the foreshock of a career of seismic proportions that would rattle theatres from London to St. Petersburg for four decades. Discovered in Munich and influentially advocated in Naples by 'the Czech Mozart,' Josef Mysliveček, Marchesi was not just a performer but a personality whose life of excess and extravagance is reported to have occasionally come near to spiraling out of control. Like Mick Jagger in the turbulent environment of the 1960s and '70s, Marchesi was likely subject during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century and the first decade of the Nineteenth to public perception founded equally upon fact and hype. Partisans of a rival singer may or may not have actually attempted to poison him, but the preponderance of evidence existing in the music composed for him affirms that the assertion that Marchesi possessed a voice extraordinary both in range and in technical acumen is anything but apocryphal. An offspring of an unprecedented initiative to collect, interpret, and preserve primary- and secondary-source materials related to the castrato's life, career, and lingering cultural footprint, Glossa's Arias for Luigi Marchesi unites mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, period-instrument ensemble Stile Galante, and conductor Stefano Aresi in a recital of diverse arias composed for Marchesi and painstakingly prepared for modern performance by Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. Intersections of song and scholarship do not always engender ingratiating music-making, but the collaborations that conceived Arias for Luigi Marchesi have succeeded in giving life to a truly phenomenal recording.
If contemporary accounts of him are to be believed, Marchesi was a temperamental man who enjoyed the attentions of virtually every lady of culture with whom he came into contact, owing not only to a castrato's relative 'safety' as an amorous partner but, even more magnetically, to what was deemed in the Eighteenth Century an exceptional handsomeness among singers of his artificially-altered condition. It is not unexpected that composers should have been eager to capitalize on the commercial viability of Marchesi's unique talents. Within a few years of conquering Munich in Mysliveček's Ezio in 1777, Marchesi had charmed audiences—if not his on-stage colleagues, it seems—throughout Italy. Though early successes prior to his Munich breakthrough were in comic rôles, it was primarily as a tragedian that Marchesi excelled, and it is music for some of his finest dramatic parts that forms the foundation of this disc.
Upon that ingeniously-laid foundation, it is the voice of Ann Hallenberg that constructs the magnificently ornate Rococo edifice of Arias for Luigi Marchesi. The artistry of the Swedish mezzo-soprano is a study in contrasts, her blinding virtuosity combining with voluptuousness of timbre rare for a singer with such an astounding bravura technique. She can shake the pillars of Rome as Monteverdi's Ottavia, silence the din of revolt as Händel's Siroe, out-bloom the hanging gardens of Babylon as Rossini's Arsace, and find the heart of music by Mahler as though she wrote it herself. In this disc's program of arias specially-crafted for Luigi Marchesi's singular capabilities, Hallenberg accomplishes the difficult feat of making this music entirely her own. It is not only because much of this music has here been recorded for the first time that it is virtually impossible to imagine these pieces being sung by any other voice. Hallenberg does not endeavor to 'become' Marchesi in some misguided Stanislavskian sense but quite simply lives this music. This level of submersion in music is rare even in the suspended reality of opera: Melchior's Lohengrin, Flagstad's Isolde, Mödl's Brünnhilde, Albanese's Cio-Cio San, Callas's Violetta, and Sills's Manon are models of definitive interpretations to the ranks of which Hallenberg's accounts of the arias on this disc must be added.
Credited, not least in Mozart's correspondence with his father, with having played a significant rôle in the development of Marchesi’s career, Prague-born composer Josef Mysliveček was exponentially more important to opera in the Eighteenth Century than his renown in the Twenty-First suggests. There are indications that modern esteem for Mysliveček's work is gradually increasing: performances and recordings of his music in recent years have shifted focus from consideration of the composer as a craftsman in Mozart's shadow to appreciation of his pioneering genius. Several notable recordings of his music and an acclaimed production of his opera Motezuma have recently restored Mysliveček's name to wider circulation. The composer's interaction with Marchesi is represented on this disc by Megacle's aria 'Se cerca, se dice «L'amico dov'è?»' from L'Olimpiade, a setting of one of Pietro Metastasio's most popular libretti—two further settings are also sampled on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. The aria receives from Hallenberg one of the loveliest performances on the disc, her hypnotic singing seconded by the superbly stylish playing of Stile Galante. Created with the specific mission of performing music of this vintage as it is likely to have been played when new, the ensemble's sound can be entrancingly intimate and as richly-textured as the playing of orchestras with twice as many musicians in their ranks. So thoroughly prepared is Aresi's direction that he seems almost to anticipate Hallenberg's every breath without sacrificing the excitement of spontaneity. Mysliveček's cosmopolitan, gallant idiom both resembles the styles of contemporaries like Dittersdorf, Joseph and Michael Haydn, and Salieri and prefigures works of Mozart's maturity. Hallenberg traverses the dramatic landscape of 'Se cerca, se dice' with broad strides, the solidity of her tone making the anguish of the text all the more telling. Musically, Hallenberg sings the aria with absolute proficiency.
Giuseppe Sarti's Giulio Sabino was one of the foremost operatic 'hits' of the second half of the Eighteenth Century; so much so, in fact, that it was the object of Salieri's mostly good-natured parody in his Prima la musica e poi le parole. This and Mozart’s use of a melody from Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode in the banquet scene in Don Giovanni secured Sarti’s place among the footnotes of musical history, but, like Mysliveček, his significance during his lifetime suggests that Sarti deserves greater prominence among Twenty-First-Century evaluations of Eighteenth-Century opera. Hallenberg focuses her inquisitiveness on Sarti’s work with fantastic performances of three well-crafted arias. She opens her recital with Rinaldo’s ‘Vedo l'abisso orrendo onde ritrassi il piede’ from Sarti’s 1786 Armida e Rinaldo, first performed at the Hermitage during Marchesi’s tenure in St. Petersburg. Employing Marchesi’s own ornaments, Hallenberg gives a dazzling account of the piece, negotiating the demanding divisions with poise. No less impressive is her voicing of ‘Lungi da te, ben mio, se viver non poss'io’ from the same opera, a cornerstone in Marchesi’s repertory, in which she utilizes ornaments devised by the castrato’s pupil Angelica Catalani and a cadenza by Domenico Corri. Megacle’s aria ‘Rendi, oh cara, il prence amato a quest'alma, al mio dolor’ from Sarti’s L'Olimpiade, first heard in Florence in 1778 and revised for Rome five years later, is the finest of the Sarti arias on this disc, and Hallenberg sings it handsomely. Marchesi's embellishments are here—and elsewhere, frankly—too much of a good thing. There is no doubt that, even among the most celebrated exponents of his Fach, Marchesi possessed a stupendous technique, one that he was evidently eager to show off. His ornaments, though undeniably clever, often distract from the greatest strength of Hallenberg’s singing, its uncommon beauty. Her own technique enables her to manage every maneuver in Marchesi’s playbook, every roulade and interval within the nearly-three-octave compass of this music, with élan that would surely have impressed the great castrato, but, as recorded, the unfettered pyrotechnical exhibitions sometimes overshadow the better qualities of both the music and the singer.
The Naples-born Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli shared with Marchesi a distaste for Napoleon that was most memorably manifested during his service as maestro di cappella in the Sistine Chapel in his refusal to lead a musical celebration honoring Napoleon’s newborn son, proclaimed at his christening as the king of Rome. Ironically, Zingarelli was arrested for his refusal and transported to Paris, where Napoleon, an ardent admirer of his music, promptly freed him and even granted him a state pension. Despite devoting much of his career to liturgical positions, Zingarelli’s fame—a fame that numerous sources cite as having been sufficient to inspire Bellini to compose music for Zingarelli’s funeral upon his death in 1837, despite the fact that Bellini died in 1835, perhaps confusing the attribution of the Sinfonia funebre composed by Francesco Florimo, a pupil of Zingarelli, in response to Bellini’s death—relied primarily upon his prowess as a composer of opera. Premièred in 1791, Zingarelli’s Pirro, re di Epiro was espoused by Marchesi in Milan in 1792. The title rôle was obviously one that the castrato found especially congenial, having performed it in a further five Italian cities—and twice in Venice—between 1793 and 1798. Hallenberg is joined in her performances of excerpts from Pirro on this disc by soprano Francesca Cassinari, who voices Polissena’s lines with attractive tone and noble phrasing that make her an ideal partner for Hallenberg. Marchesi’s ornaments in the aria ‘Chi mi dà consiglio, aita, o mi squarcia in petto il cor?’ again shift attention from the incredible evenness of Hallenberg’s singing to her technical dexterity, but the radiance of her lyrical singing cannot be wholly obscured by Marchesi’s over-enthusiastic adornments. Hallenberg and Cassinari spellbindingly inhabit the rôles of Pirro and Polissena in the gripping scene ‘Qual mi sorprende e agghiaccia insolito terror!’ The ladies alternate lines in recitative with greater communicativeness than many singers achieve in live, staged performances. Then, Hallenberg delivers Pirro’s aria ’Cara, negl'occhi tuoi si pasce il mio desire’ with such sincerity that the character’s words seem her own. The harmonic idiosyncrasies of Zingarelli’s music benefit immensely from the singer’s exact intonation.
Johann Simon Mayr is now remembered almost exclusively for having mentored Donizetti in the art of composing opera, but he was a gifted composer in his own right, one whose intuition for dramatic expression was powerfully reintroduced to modern listeners by the laser-voiced soprano Marisa Galvany in her too-little-known studio recording of his 1813 opera Medea in Corinto. First performed in 1798 at Venice's storied Teatro La Fenice, Mayr's Lauso e Lidia was one of the refined scores that bolstered the composer's reputation as a burgeoning master of bel canto. Composed only seven years after the première of Die Zauberflöte, Lauso's aria 'Oh qual contento, oh qual dolcezza' displays stylistic kinship with Mozart's mature vocal writing. Though she has been lauded for her portrayals of the title rôle in Ascanio in Alba, Dorabella in Così fan tutte, and Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, Mozart rôles have not figured conspicuously in her operatic repertory to date, but the fluency with which she sings ‘Oh qual contento, oh qual dolcezza’ hints at tantalizing Mozartean prospects, perhaps on disc if not on stage—not least Idamante in Idomeno. Hallenberg draws Mayr’s melodic lines with great feeling, the flourishing joy described by the text finding an outlet in the controlled ardor of her singing.
Known more for his music for the violin, on which instrument he was a widely-acknowledged virtuoso, than for his operas, Gaetano Pugnani was nonetheless a well-qualified composer of music for the stage. Born in Torino, his talents took him throughout Europe, and he was particularly admired as both violinist and composer in Paris and London, where he counted Johann Christian Bach among his respected—and respecting—friends and colleagues. Pugnani's opera Demofoonte, his treatment of another of Metastasio's most widely-traveled libretti, was launched at his hometown's Teatro Regio, where Marchesi created the rôle of Timante in 1788. The singer's surviving ornaments in the aria ‘Misero pargoletto, il tuo destin non sai’ are considerably more restrained than in other selections on this disc, and, in truth, Hallenberg’s performance of the aria is all the better for the castrato’s relative prudence. Pugnani’s music proves a vehicle for Hallenberg’s most moving singing on the disc, Timante’s trepidation poignantly conveyed by the burnished core of her sound. Marchesi’s embellishments being less flamboyant should not imply that ‘Misero pargoletto’ is in any way less difficult than the other selections on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. In fact, subtler sentiments are often far more burdensome for singers, and it is in this element of her artistry that Hallenberg is most triumphant: her emotional directness, always at the service of both composer and librettist, here reveals the potency of music some listeners might be inclined to dismiss unheard as merely decorative.
A native of Cremona, Francesco Bianchi was a revered pupil of Niccolò Jommelli whose existence away from the theatre was laden with misfortunes that likely prompted his suicide in London in 1810. It is post-Freudian over-analyzing to seek in Bianchi's music discernible traces of the turmoil that complicated his life, but Castore's aria 'Sembianze amabili del mio bel sole' from his opera Castore e Polluce is a beautiful piece that speaks volumes about the composer's keen adeptness at musical portraiture. Though his idiom is very different from that of his French predecessor, Bianchi obviously learned much during his time in Paris from Rameau's Castor et Pollux, music from which remained popular until the end of the Eighteenth Century. There is an atmosphere of serenity in Hallenberg's singing of 'Sembianze amabili' that goes straight to the soul. There are moments on Arias for Luigi Marchesi in which Hallenberg's technique is direly challenged, and there are occasional notes at the top of the range that sound forced, but there are stretches of singing such as that in Bianchi's music that overwhelm with liquid, luminous tone. However affectingly Marchesi might have sung this music, it is regrettable that a composer who endured such unhappiness cannot hear Hallenberg sing his creation.
Like several of the composers advocated on Arias for Luigi Marchesi, Domenico Cimarosa's enduring operatic legacy was until recently reliant upon a single work, in his case the delightful Il matrimonio segreto. Cimarosa, too, was among the musical moths lured to the flame of Metastasio's L'Olimpiade, however, and Hallenberg, Stile Galante, and Aresi give a compelling performance of Megacle's aria 'Superbo di me stesso andrò portando in fronte' from Cimarosa's setting. The vitality of Stile Galante's rôle in not just accompanying but genuinely participating in Hallenberg's performances on this disc demands recognition: violinists Eva Saladin, Rossella Borsoni, Isabella Bison, Claudia Combs, Elisa Imbalzano, and Olga Popova, violists Nadine Henrichs and Isabel Juárez, cellist Agnieszka Oszańka, double-bassists Szilárd Chereji and Daniele Rosi, oboists Aviad Gershoni and Claudia Anchini, horn players Pierre-Antoine Tremblay and Ricardo Rodríguez García, bassoonists Giovanni Battista Graziadio and Niki Fortunato, flautists Silvia Tuja and Mattia Laurella, clarinetists Jānis Tretjuks and Matthias Deger, trumpeters Matteo Frigé and Matteo Macchia, and harpsichordist Andrea Friggi contribute playing that individually and collectively enhances the pleasure of hearing this disc. Even in an age of virtuosi, it is difficult to imagine Marchesi having enjoyed the cooperation of musicians as committed to his success as the ladies and gentlemen of Stile Galante are to Hallenberg’s. Without this teamwork, the mezzo-soprano’s singing of Cimarosa’s aria would be merely excellent.
The most recognizable name among those of the composers whose music is sampled on Arias for Luigi Marchesi is that of Luigi Cherubini, who is principally familiar to opera lovers owing to Maria Callas, whose portrayal of the title rôle in an Italian version of his Médée is justifiably legendary. Callas's intense singing of Medea's famous 'Dei tuoi figli la madre' is matched by Hallenberg's performances of Poro's aria 'Quanto è fiero il mio tormento nel vederti lacrimar' from Cherubini's Alessandro nelle Indie. Interestingly, the disc offers two versions of the aria, each with different ornamentation meticulously written out by Marchesi. In the first version, the bravura grandstanding threatens to reduce the aria to mere showmanship, but Hallenberg's thoughtful singing rescues the music from banality. Naturally, she is more than equal to Marchesi's most outrageous inventions. The second version is appended as a bonus track, and it is a suitably spirited finale to the disc. The temerity of Hallenberg’s singing ignites Cherubini’s vocal lines: even in the context of a single aria, Callas’s Medea has a peer in Hallenberg’s Poro.
Writing three decades after Luigi Marchesi’s 1788 London début in the title rôle of Sarti’s Giulio Sabino, Lord Mount Edgcumbe recollected in his Musical Reminiscences of the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe that the castrato’s ‘acting was spirited and expressive: his vocal powers were very great, his voice of extensive compass, but a little inclined to be thick. His execution was very considerable, and he was rather too fond of displaying it; nor was his cantabile singing equal to his bravura. In recitative, and scenes of energy and passion, he was incomparable, and had he been less lavish of ornaments, which were not always appropriate, and possessed a more pure and simple taste, his performance would have been faultless: it was always striking, animated, and effective.’ Lord Mount Edgcumbe’s words might have been written to describe the music on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. Many recitals of music composed for particular singers leave listeners with generic impressions of both those singers and the composers who wrote for them. Arias for Luigi Marchesi leaves no doubt of the momentousness of Marchesi’s artistry or its significance as an inspiration for the composers of his time. Still, the performances on Arias for Luigi Marchesi leave one fundamental question unanswered: can Marchesi possibly have been as marvelous a singer as Ann Hallenberg?
Marchesi miracle workers: Conductor Stefano Aresi (left) and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg (right), photographed by Minjas Zugik [Photo © 2015 by Minjas Zugik; used with permission]