29 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - FARAMONDO (M.E. Cencic, S. Karthäuser, P. Jaroussky, I.-S. Sim, M. de Liso, X. Sabata; Virgin Classics)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Faramondo, HWV 39: M.E. Cencic (Faramondo), S. Karthäuser (Clotilde), M. de Liso (Rosimonda), P. Jaroussky (Adolfo), I.-S. Sim (Gustavo), X. Sabata (Gernando), F. Bettini (Teobaldo), T. Wey (Childerico); Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis [recorded in Auditorio Stelio Molo, Radio Svizzera di lingua italiana, Lugano (Switzerland), 19 – 24 October 2008; Virgin Classics 50999 2 16611 2 9]

Completed only two days before composition was commenced on Serse and first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 3 January 1738, Faramondo was one of Händel’s final operatic scores, the rivalry between Händel’s company and that formed around Niccolò Porpora and his star pupil Farinelli having taken its toll not only on the resources of Händel’s company but also on the receptiveness of the English public for Italian opera seria. Though continuing to compose operas for London, Händel’s talents were increasingly devoted to the newly-popular genre of English oratorio. If not exactly an operatic swansong, then, Faramondo was one of the last fruits plucked from a deep-rooted tree that had yielded some of the greatest musical and dramatic scores of the first half of the eighteenth century.

The first-night cast of Faramondo offered the London public an assemblage of singers that included three of the greatest operatic artists of the era: the famous mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli, the soprano Elisabeth Duparc (known, owing to her nationality, as La Francesina), and the bass Antonio Montagnana, veteran Händelian for whom the composer wrote many of his finest bass roles. Despite the exceptional abilities of this cast and the fact that Farinelli had left London, Faramondo received only eight performances during its initial run and was never revived during Händel’s life, ultimately waiting until a 1976 Halle production to be heard again. Musicologists and Händel specialists have long attributed this relative failure to a disastrously weak libretto, anonymously adapted from a stronger libretto by Apostolo Zeno (previously set by Gasparini and, ironically, Porpora), and the fickleness of the English public, at the time of Faramondo’s premiere devoted to the burlesque theatre. While one cannot avoid pensively shaking one’s head over the misfortunes of the libretto, among the weakest and least poetic that Händel set, and without knowing the merits of the burlesque piece (the music for which was by Lampe) that so absorbed Londoners’ attention during Faramondo’s brief life, hearing this recording of Faramondo must prompt any admirer of Händel’s operas, and indeed any opera-lover, to wonder at what fools they were who condemned such a distinguished, touching piece to obscurity.

The musical virtues of the score are, in fact, too numerous to itemize. Somehow overcoming a libretto of such poor quality, Händel filled Faramondo with music of great inspiration, invention, and impact. The opera has in Faramondo’s first-act aria ‘Sì, tornerò a morir, non a placarti’ one of those exquisite ‘pathetic airs’ at the composition of which Händel excelled; indeed, a piece of time-suspending beauty and emotional directness worthy to stand alongside its more famous brethren in the sores of Händel’s operatic high-water period. Though every aria is not at this level, there is never a perceptible waning of inspiration, as sometimes exists in a Mozart opera, and the music never fails to effectively portray both characters and dramatic situations. Though it might be argued that its relative unfamiliarity [and this offers an opportunity to correct an error that is seemingly frequently repeated in conjunction with the release of this recording: this is not, in fact, the first studio recording of the work, as the Vox label previously brought out a recording of a somewhat corrupted edition of the score featuring committed Händelians including Julianne Baird, Drew Minter, D’Anna Fortunato, and Jennifer Lane] contributes to this reaction to some extent, this is not one of those scores in listening to which one impatiently awaits the ‘plums.’ The quality of the music is such that, even when the words and the drama they enact are mundane, one’s attention and interest are held through all 165 minutes of this performance.

Conductor Diego Fasolis responds to every nuance of Händel’s score, presiding over a performance that minimizes the weaknesses of the text by focusing on the unstinting brilliance of the music. This is one of those rare performances in which every choice of tempo seems inherently right, not only for the music at hand but for the singer (or singers) executing it. The Coro della Radio Svizzera, perhaps a few too many in numbers for their task, sing eloquently and effectively, making the most of their two appearances and reminding the listener that, at the time at which he was composing Faramondo, Händel was also honing his talents for composing English oratorios. I Barocchisti, another of those wonderful period-instrument bands with which Europe seems to be brimming, play brilliantly, avoiding the sharp edges and brutal attacks employed by some of their rivals and consistently producing tone equal to the musical challenges and wonders offered by the score. The group’s concertmaster, Duilio Galfetti, phrases very eloquently in his playing in the overture and Faramondo’s ‘Sì, tornerò a morir.’

Reuniting a quartet of participants from Les Arts Florissants’ touring production of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio (previously discussed, following a performance in New York, on this site), the vocal cast in this performance carefully preserves Händel’s original vocal distribution, offering countertenors not only in the title role (composed for Caffarelli) but also as Adolfo (sung in the first cast by soprano Margherita Chimenti), Gernando (created by contralto Antonia Merighi), and Childerico (composed for the boy soprano William Savage, for whom Händel also composed Oberto in Alcina and who later sang both countertenor and bass roles in Händel’s oratorios). The historical accuracy of this practice can be debated at great length, but surely that is appropriate only when musical values are compromised by miscasting. That is never the case in this performance, in which not one among these high-voiced gentlemen disappoints.

The opera presents two considerable roles for low-voiced male singers, as well. Gustavo, Montagnana’s role, is sung in this performance by South Korean bass In-Sung Sim, a distinguished singer whose experience in Wagner in no way inhibits his excellent command of coloratura. Mr. Sim makes a very strong impression in what is essentially a bravura role with firm, aptly dark singing and an imposing lower register. Singing Teobaldo, Italian baritone Fulvio Bettini makes the most of every opportunity given to him by Händel, pointing his tone effectively and executing his divisions manfully. It is often in the lower-voiced male roles that recent Händel recordings have been deficient, but that trend is put off course in this performance.

Childerico, originally for boy soprano, offers limited scope for impressing the listener (the role does not have an aria), but young Swiss countertenor Terry Wey sings with such natural grace that he both honors Händel’s original casting and confirms his presence among the field of talented countertenors for whom greater opportunities are hoped in future.

Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata, very moving as Alessio’s grieving Mother in Sant’Alessio here sings Gernando, another grieved character. Mr. Sabata’s timbre is quite unlike those of his colleagues in this performance, deeper but very soulful. Securely meeting every technical demand of the role, Mr. Sabata sings with thrilling abandon, coloring the voice with fury and descending to baritonal low notes to great effect. The voice is a gloriously rich contralto, even throughout an impressive range without being hooty or effeminate. Mr. Sabata creates an engaging character with formidable singing. I object only to a couple of instances in which the musical line is disturbed with snarled effects, not inappropriate dramatically but unnecessary when the excellent young singer already conjures menace with the colorations of the voice.

Italian mezzo-soprano Marina de Liso also makes a strong impression as Rosimonda, singing with a technique so solid that it deals almost off-handedly with Händel’s demands. If not always beautiful in a conventional sense, the voice never loses focus no matter how difficult the music it faces becomes. Ms. de Liso employs a few questionably elaborate cadenzas that exploit an exciting upper register, but even the most extravagant among these does not threaten to cross the line between musicality and vulgarity. On balance, this is an engrossing performance by an important singer, another superb mezzo-soprano for whose dedication to Baroque repertory every lover of Händel’s operas must be grateful.

Equally beguiling is Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser, already an admired Pamina, here singing La Francesina’s role of Clotilde. Ms. Karthäuser’s youthful tone is most appealing, and her extensive experience with Baroque music and conductors who specialize in performances thereof (especially William Christie and René Jacobs) is apparent throughout this performance. The poise of Ms. Karthäuser’s singing, befitting an effective Pamina, is equally impressive in the context of Clotilde’s music, which is delivered with masterful traversals of the difficulties Händel knew he could rely on La Francesina to navigate with aplomb. If Ms. Karthäuser’s engagement with the drama seems a bit less complete than what her colleagues achieve, this can be attributed in part to the dignity of the role, a quality served in splendid fashion by the refined beauty of Ms. Karthäuser’s singing. A great Pamina is a rare entity, but a great Händel soprano is rarer still, and one hopes that Ms. Karthäuser will build upon the foundation of this wonderful performance to explore other Händel heroines in future.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the casting in this recording is the selection of young French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky for Adolfo, composed by Händel for a female soprano. Granting that it is inherently beneficial to have a male singer in a male role, the foremost concern is whether a countertenor, however gifted, can cope with the tessitura of a role conceived for a female soprano, even a Baroque role in which tessitura was generally lower than what is considered typical for soprano roles by later standards. In most cases, the modern countertenor voice, weaker above and below the staff than the voices of most female singers, is simply not suited for the higher tessitura of soprano roles. Mr. Jaroussky’s voice is naturally lighter and higher than those of most modern countertenors, however, and the degree to which he succeeds in this performance is a testament both to his extraordinary artistry and to Händel’s acumen for composing music that is eminently singable even when formidably complex. It would be dishonest to suggest that Mr. Jaroussky sounds consistently masculine (and, indeed, in this as in other performances he sometimes achieves this less than some female singers have managed) but his singing is consistently shaped with style, grace, and genuine beauty of tone. The highest tones sometimes take on a brittle, slightly pinched sound that, despite creating a certain concern for the longevity of the voice’s natural beauty within such a tessitura, is nonetheless seldom bothersome. Mr. Jaroussky works harder for dramatic effects because his voice is limited in coloration, but he makes his mark with special eloquence in Adolfo’s pensive moments. One occasionally desires greater sharpness in Mr. Jaroussky’s approach, but the technical wizardry and tonal allure of the singing are undeniable.

It is significant that Faramondo’s music was composed for Caffarelli rather than Händel’s ‘usual’ London castrato, Senesino (for whom many of Händel’s greatest heroes were conceived). Whereas Senesino was decidedly an alto castrato whose powerful and beautiful lower register was appreciated by contemporaries, the higher tessitura of roles composed for Caffarelli reveal that he was what more recent operatic conventions deem a mezzo-soprano. In Händel’s autograph, the tessitura of Faramondo’s music is similar to that of Rosimonda’s, again presenting a casting challenge in that the full mezzo-soprano range is not available at a consistent level of quality to most modern countertenors. The full range required for Faramondo is very much available to Max Emanuel Cencic, however, this performance filled with expressive use of the lower register that sounds legitimately like a mezzo-soprano’s chest register (rather than the exaggerated baritone sounds of a falsettist) and top tones that ring with the authority of a dramatic mezzo-soprano. Faramondo is hardly Amneris, of course, but Mr. Cencic sings with such grandiloquence and commanding tone that one is convinced that, for all that it was composed for a castrato, Faramondo is a truly great mezzo-soprano role. Mr. Cencic succeeds beyond Mr. Jaroussky’s achievements in that his Faramondo does manage to sound unquestionably masculine throughout, every inch the proud Frankish king. Mr. Cencic delivers the aforementioned ‘Sì, tornerò a morir’ with heartbreaking beauty of tone, and the bravura arias (not least the stunning aria that ends the first act) are sung with fullness, unerring dramatic verisimilitude, and unimpeachable virtuosity. Embellishments and cadenzas occasionally lean just slightly towards fussiness, but Mr. Cencic delivers every trial and trick with such musicality and emotional directness that criticism is disarmed. His performance on the Ambroisie Rodrigo inspired the hope that Mr. Cencic would be assigned leading roles in future, and this recording rewards that faith magnificently. Without question, this is one of the most impressive examples of countertenor singing on records.

Though not representative, alas, of Händel composing under ideal circumstances, Faramondo nonetheless displays Händel at his best. As he composed Faramondo, Händel – ever a crafty and perceptive man of the theatre – surely knew that the lifespan of Italian opera in London was drawing to its close, but he lavished on this score the finest gifts of his musical maturity, every number in the opera by turns stirring the blood or touching the heart in a manner achieved by only the handful of the greatest composers. Offering a performance that is properly stylish without sounding academic, this recording preserves the work of several fine artists, exhibits in the singing of Philippe Jaroussky and (even more so) Max Emanuel Cencic the fascinating and musically stimulating accomplishments of countertenors in full-scale operatic roles, and in the end is one of the very best Händel operatic recordings known to me.