GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787), and WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Kings, Princes & Heroes – Opera Arias—Zvi Emanuel-Marial, countertenor; Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin; Shalev Ad-El, conductor [Recorded in b-sharp Studio, Berlin, Germany, 19 – 21 April 2015; Thorofon CTH2622; 1 CD, 52:42; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes (USA), jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]
For the Twenty-First-Century listener with interest in and affection for music composed before 1800, one of the most frustrating missing pieces in the puzzle of musical history is the inability to know precisely how the legendary castrati of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and early Nineteenth Centuries actually sounded. It is possible through careful study of the music written for them to ascertain profiles of their technical proficiencies, but evidence of the characteristics of the sounds that they produced is circumstantial at best. Comparing critical assessments of today’s singers with what the ears hear often reveals broad chasms between the two points of view, and it cannot be assumed that writers of previous centuries were any more reliable in translating aural realities into literary mementos. It must be assumed, however, that among the ranks of castrati were as many varied timbres and distinct tonal palettes as exist among modern singers. The sole recordings of a castrato, made when their subject, the greatly-admired Cappella Sistina singer Alessandro Moreschi, was in his mid-forties, are invaluable documents but preserve a voice that bears no resemblance to the instruments described in Eighteenth-Century accounts of the work of singers like Senesino, Farinelli, and Carestini. Moreschi was trained for liturgical rather than operatic singing, of course, but his quavery tones as bequeathed to posterity via his 1902 and 1904 recordings, though poignant and sporadically lovely, only hint at the extraordinary brilliance attributed to his similarly-altered forebears. In some cases readied for the stage by the composers who wrote rôles for them, how can the castrati of the Baroque and Classical eras have sounded? Were the thoughts of diarists and writers like Charles Burney and Tobias Smollett, who wrote—fictionally but almost certainly reflecting authentic opinion among his contemporaries—in his 1771 picaresque novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker that the voice of Giusto Tenducci, a tremendously popular singer in London and among the few castrati who married, ‘to be sure is neither man’s nor woman’s but...is more melodious than either,’ clouded by the kind of hero worship that star castrati obviously inspired?
From the pioneering efforts of Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin to the generation of singers like James Bowman and René Jacobs who reclaimed a place for their Fach in the world’s opera houses, perhaps the most significant vocal development of the past half-century has been the emergence of countertenors who sing the music written for castrati with passion and polish that at least suggest the inimitable mastery of their physically-metamorphosed ancestors. Since the 1988 Metropolitan Opera débuts of Jeffrey Gall and Derek Lee Ragin in Händel’s Giulio Cesare, countertenors have prevailed both in the MET’s National Council auditions and in international competitions, excelled in virtually all of the world’s major opera houses, and revitalized repertory not performed—or performed badly—since the deaths of the original interpreters. Moreover, countertenors of varying degrees of showmanship and natural vocal talent have in the past quarter-century significantly expanded the Fach’s territory beyond the confines of lute songs and Baroque repertory, an effort furthered by the gifted artist featured on this disc. Following a mesmerizing, superbly-sung Thorofon recording of Schubert’s Winterreise [reviewed here], Israeli-born countertenor Zvi Emanuel-Marial further enriches that label’s catalogue with Kings, Princes & Heroes, this recital of arias by Georg Friedrich Händel, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—arias first sung by castrati and now central to the modern countertenor repertory. Under the direction of Shalev Ad-El, whose uniformly ideal tempi disclose both affinity for the repertory and excellent working relationships with soloist and orchestra, the Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin musicians provide period-appropriate but full-bodied accompaniments that, without miring the performances in idiosyncrasies, simply sound right for music by Händel, Gluck, and Mozart. Moreover, the conductor’s tempi and the orchestra’s sonorities complement the singer’s musical and dramatic inflections, providing him with a wholly sympathetic environment in which to explore the musical legacy of which his strikingly beautiful and immaculately-trained alto voice make him a natural and deserving inheritor.
Opening his thoughtfully-arranged programme with the title character’s aria ‘Dopo l’orrore’ from Händel’s superb (and still too-little-known) 1723 opera Ottone, re di Germania (HWV 15), Emanuel-Marial begins his journey into the heart of the castrato repertory with music composed for one of the most celebrated of these musical marvels, Francesco Bernardi. Using the nom de guerre Senesino, Bernardi frequently collaborated with Händel, who entrusted to him the creation of the primo uomo rôles in a number of his London operas. Emanuel-Marial sings both ‘Dopo l’orrore’ and Ottone’s ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore’ with considerable depths of feeling and focused tone. Especially in ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore,’ he compellingly uses the text to shape and propel the melodic line, both revealing the intelligence of Händel’s word setting and suggesting the intuition with which the composer clearly expected his star castrato to interpret the music. In all of the arias on Kings, Princes & Heroes, Emanuel-Marial exhibits an exceptional ability to depict three-dimensional characters within the duration of a single aria. He gives the listener a more comprehensive portrait of Ottone in a pair of arias than many singers have managed to do in performances—and recordings—of the full opera.
It was also Senesino who originated the rôles of the presumed-dead king Bertarido in Rodelinda (HWV 19, 1725) and the title warrior in Orlando (HWV 31, 1733), the second of these having earned the castrato particular praise for his nuanced performance of the character’s innovative mad scene. The furious fiorature of Bertarido’s ‘Vivi, tiranno’ challenge Emanuel-Marial’s technique and breath control, but he emerges unscathed: his natural gifts are better suited to lyrical effusions, but he dispatches the difficult divisions in ‘Vivi, tiranno’ with even tone, precise pitch, and exciting brio—qualities that bring to mind Charles Burney’s oft-quoted 1775 description of Senesino’s ‘powerful, clear, and sweet contralto voice,’ ‘perfect intonation,’ and ‘excellent shake.’ Indeed, Burney’s assertion that Senesino’s ‘manner of singing was masterly, and his elocution unrivalled’ is equally valid as an assessment of Emanuel-Marial’s singing of the Händel arias on this disc, an impression furthered by the countertenor’s dramatically fiery but vocally unperturbed account of Orlando’s ‘Fammi combattere mostri e tifei.’ As in Bertarido’s music, he emotes poetically without neglecting the sheer athleticism demanded by ‘Fammi combattere mostri e tifei.’ His negotiations of passagework are as clean as his insights into Händel’s characters are intelligent.
The title rôle in Händel’s idiosyncratic 1738 charmer Serse was created by Gaetano Majorano, acclaimed as Caffarelli by audiences in virtually all of the major European cities where opera was performed in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. An ingenious departure from the opere serie that typified Händel’s scores composed for London, Serse baffled Londoners in 1738, but the popularity of the aria rediscovered in the Nineteenth Century and ultimately—and stupidly—christened ‘Händel’s Largo’ rapidly endeared itself to listeners who had never so much as walked by an opera house. In the performance on this disc, Emanuel-Marial lends great tenderness to his delivery of the recitative ‘Frondi tenere e belle del mio platano amato,’ and his subdued, sincere traversal of the famous aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ evinces an almost erotic sensitivity: this Serse’s affection for his beloved plane tree permeates to the cellular level. Even more expressive is his traversal of Ruggiero’s exquisite ‘Verdi prati, selve amene’ from Alcina. First sung by Giovanni Carestini, the aria is one of Händel’s most haunting numbers, its lilting principal theme exuding a tranquility so profound as to almost seem disquieting. Emanuel-Marial’s dulcetly-phrased singing grants his Ruggiero a vulnerability that he ought to possess but so rarely does in performance, and the simplicity of his reading is touchingly effective.
Hearing his music alongside arias like those for Ruggiero and Serse reveals that Gluck learned much from Händel, but, though the Saxon had been dead for less than four years when Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice premièred in Vienna in 1762, much had changed in the composition of opera. Like Johann Adolf Hasse, Gluck was a contemporary of both masters of the late Baroque like Händel and Johann Sebastian Bach and avant-garde exponents of Viennese Classicism like Joseph Haydn, Antonio Salieri, and Mozart. By the time that Gluck revised Orfeo for Paris in 1774, however, the advocacy by rival camps for French and Italian opera had reached its fervent peak. Gluck’s operas energized and epitomized the argument on behalf of eschewing Italianate excess in favor of Gallic grandeur, thereby ostensibly returning opera’s ethos to its roots in Greek drama. Ironically, though, Orfeo became more florid, not less, when the opera was staged in Paris, the daunting bravura canzonetta ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ borrowed from Il Parnasso confuso and Le feste d’Apollo in order to provide the Paris Orphée, haute-contre Joseph Legros, with a suitably decorative showpiece. His own notes reflect that the renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni, Gluck’s first Orfeo, ornamented his vocal lines in Vienna but tastefully and in a manner that gave his interpretation of the rôle heightened spontaneity. The effect of Guadagni’s vocalism in Orfeo’s ‘Che puro ciel’ cannot have failed to enchant audiences, but it can hardly have been more eloquent or unaffectedly musical than Emanuel-Marial’s singing of it on this disc. It is again the utter simplicity of the singer’s approach that awes: the concentration on purity of line engenders an acutely hypnotic performance. Emanuel-Marial movingly imparts the despair of ‘Che farò senza Euridice’ without wallowing in it, the voice poised even in the expression of tragic grief. This most famous of Gluck’s arias receives from Emanuel-Marial a voicing entirely free of routine but replete with the doleful sentiments of a fabled musician mourning the loss of his true love.
Mozart was an old man of fourteen years when his Mitridate, re di Ponto (KV 87/74a) premièred at Milan’s Teatro Regio Ducal in 1770. The feuding brothers Farnace and Sifare, a veritable operatic Cain and Abel, were first interpreted by the castrati Giuseppe Cicognani and Pietro Benedetti, the latter known to the public as Sartorino. The ingenuity with which Mozart differentiated the brothers by varying their music is remarkable for a composer of any age but thoroughly gobsmacking for one on the boyhood side of adolescence. In his brief survey of the young Mozart’s writing for castrati, Emanuel-Marial sings arias for both of Mitridate’s sons. Farnace’s ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ and ‘Va, l’error mio palesa’ are subtly contrasted, Mozart’s instrumentation already displaying noteworthy maturity, and the countertenor’s vocalism here adds a further level of individualization. In ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema,’ Emanuel-Marial’s voice glistens with the steely glint of indolence, his impassioned singing of the roulades aptly hinting at the character’s self-serving ambition and ruthlessness. His performance of ‘Va, l’error mio palesa’ manifests confidence and swagger, though, as in ‘Vivi, tiranno,’ the coloratura demands are met capably but not completely comfortably. Of an altogether divergent spirit is Sifare’s ‘Lungi da te, mio bene.’ Emanuel-Marial duets magnificently with the virtuosic horn obbligato, played wonderfully by the unidentified Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin soloist, but the foremost accomplishment of his singing is the spectrum of emotions that he unfurls by emphasizing not sequences of notes but words and long-breathed phrases. Emanuel-Marial’s prowess at so palpably distinguishing Farnace from Sifare in the context of a recital disc is indicative of the magnitude of his artistry.
It is impossible to judge whether Zvi Emanuel-Marial’s singing on Kings, Princes & Heroes in any way resembles the sounds with which Senesino, Caffarelli, Carestini, Guadagno, Cicognani, and Sartorino beguiled audiences in the Eighteenth Century, but it is impossible to judge Kings, Princes & Heroes as anything but a very enjoyable, often enlightening disc. It is regrettable that history and technology do not allow today’s listeners to hear the great castrati as they sounded when the ink was still wet on Händel’s, Gluck’s, and Mozart’s scores. With the work of a singer as skilled as Zvi Emanuel-Marial to savor, though, that regret disappears the moment that his first notes take flight.