10 August 2013

CD REVIEW: RIVALS - Arias for Farinelli & Co. by Bononcini, Broschi, Leo, and Vinci (David Hansen, countertenor; deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012)

RIVALS - Arias for Farinelli & Co. (deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012)

ANTONIO MARIA BONONCINI (1677 – 1726), RICCARDO BROSCHI (1698 – 1756), LEONARDO LEO (1694 – 1744), and LEONARDO VINCI (1690 – 1730): Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.—David Hansen, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis; Alessandro De Marchi, conductor and harpsichord [Recorded in the Oratorio di Santa Croce, Mondovì, Italy, 12 – 16 June 2013; deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012; 1CD, 76:17]

In generations past, an important singer’s first recording of Italian arias would almost invariably have included the music of Verdi.  Today, the same circumstances of a young singer entering the recording studio to record a first recital of Italian music would be rather more likely to produce a performance of music by Monteverdi.  Somehow, while the cognoscenti were lamenting the dearth of great Verdi and Wagner voices, there emerged a generation of extraordinary young countertenors for whom the often sexually-ambiguous rôles conceived by 17th- and 18th-Century composers for the star castrati of the day offer cherished opportunities to exercise the natural abilities of their voices.  When the likes of Bernacchi, Caffarelli, Carestini, and especially Farinelli mounted the stages of Europe it was to waves of acclaim that reshaped the Baroque musical landscape.  Music was increasingly tailored to the unique technical abilities of the singers for which it was created, enabling these physically-modified songbirds to compile troves of specially-crafted arias with which they conquered city after city.  With the twilight of the castrati, the music composed for them also fell into darkness, not only because it was increasingly out of fashion but also because voices capable of executing it were no longer cultivated.  In the years just after World War II, the sun again slowly rose on this fascinating repertory, its rays reflected by the twin beacons of Sir Alfred Deller in Britain and Russell Oberlin in the United States.  In subsequent generations, singers such as James Bowman, Michael Chance, and René Jacobs lent their gifts to operatic stages, but the success of David Daniels ushered in a new generation of countertenors from every corner of the world who are not occasional visitors to the world’s opera houses but have become permanent residents.  From among the ranks of many fine countertenors, the Australian David Hansen has distinguished himself with singing of intrinsic beauty and technical brilliance.  This exploration of music composed for Farinelli and his contemporaries Bernacchi, Caffarelli, Carestini, and others is Mr. Hansen’s début recital disc, and what a rewardingly auspicious introduction to this young singer’s gifts it is!

Born Carlo Broschi in 1705, Farinelli is the best-remembered of the scores of widely-acclaimed castrati who ruled musical Europe like veritable monarchs from the earliest stirrings of opera until the early 19th Century, when tenors supplanted castrati as operatic heroes.  The tradition of high voices in male rôles that began with the singing of castrati retained prominence well into the modern era with parts such as Richard Strauss’s Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos.  With the rôle of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed for Sir Alfred Deller, a renaissance of interest in the particular timbral possibilities of employing high voices in male rôles—countertenors rather than castrati, of course—was launched in earnest and has persisted into the 21st Century with notable parts for countertenors like the Herold in Aribert Reimann’s Medea, created in Vienna by Max Emanuel Cencic.  With the appearance of artists of the caliber of Mr. Hansen, singers capable of both sustaining high tessitura and portraying operatic heroes with genuine rather than feigned masculinity, the revival of interest in Baroque opera was perhaps inevitable.  Only sporadic primary-source accounts offer 21st-Century observers with suggestions of how the voices of Farinelli and his rivals sounded to the ears of their contemporaries.  The music composed for these astounding voices offers a myriad of clues, however.  By the time of Farinelli’s death in 1782, the Golden Age of the castrati was already waning, but the musical heritage left by these wonders of nature and man’s opportunism is a lofty peak on the operatic landscape.

In the pared-down environment of historically-informed performances of Baroque music, niceties of instrumental timbres and choices of tempi are of great importance.  The work of fine singers has too often been undermined or even completely spoiled by clumsy instrumental playing and conducting that substitutes idiosyncrasies for legitimate scholarship.  Mr. Hansen is fortunate to have in this début recital the support of Academia Montis Regalis and Alessandro De Marchi.  The Fondazione Academia Montis Regalis, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2012, has as its goal the promotion of Baroque traditions of teaching and playing, and the instrumentalists of the Academia orchestra are extraordinary virtuosi who nonetheless combine to create a seamless ensemble.  Indeed, much of their playing on Rivals is outstanding.  String tone is pointed without being acidic, and the horn playing in the version of ‘Son qual nave’ with obbligato horns, recorded here for the first time, is almost without parallel in recordings of Baroque music.  Rhythms are ideally taut but never forced or exaggerated.  Much of the credit for the incredible rhythmic vitality of the performances on this disc must be given to Maestro De Marchi, whose experience in Baroque opera and oratorio is evident in every track.  Maestro De Marchi, who also plays the continuo harpsichord, supports Mr. Hansen superbly, adopting tempi that respect the composers’ music and known conventions of Baroque practices but also enable Mr. Hansen to deliver each aria as his technique and interpretive choices dictate.  Maestro De Marchi’s conducting is happily free from the quirks that mar some other Baroque specialists’ work.  Focus is always on the music at hand, and this concentration shows in performances that simply sound right for both the music and the singer.

Of Mr. Hansen’s voice it should be said at the start that it is an ethereally beautiful instrument that would be welcome in virtually any repertory but is particularly well-served by the music composed for Farinelli and his contemporaries.  Mr. Hansen’s range is astonishing, all the more so for the registers being so completely equalized: there are no breaks as he ascends into the upper register—and quite an upper register it is, extending comfortably to soprano top C—or in his dips into a fully-supported but never exploited low voice.  Though his range is higher than many of his countertenor colleagues, Mr. Hansen’s voice possesses a natural balance that is not heard from squawky falsettists and male sopranos.  The timbre is bright but not strident, and his method of singing places vowel sounds on the breath in the best bel canto manner.  This allows Mr. Hansen to sustain cantilena with power equal to that with which he delivers bravura passages.  His ventures into his upper register on this disc are not mere stunts: music composed for Farinelli suggests that the tessitura of his voice extended at least to top D—the vocal territory of Beverly Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland—and could, at least for a time, reliably sustain notes to top C.  Contemporary commentators often remarked as flatteringly about the beauty of Farinelli’s tone as about the magnificence of his technique.  In combining a gorgeous timbre with formidable technical prowess, Mr. Hansen is as compelling a modern stand-in for Farinelli as might be heard, and he possesses the additional benefit of unmistakable machismo that likely eluded Farinelli and his castrati counterparts.

Along with ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato,’ ‘Son qual nave’ constituted Farinelli’s ‘calling card’ repertory, consisting of arias that he would often insert into performances of whichever opera was at hand.  Both arias were composed by his brother, Riccardo Broschi: ‘Son qual nave,’ which originated in the 1734 pastiche Artaserse with music by Broschi and Johann Adolph Hasse, was instrumental to Farinelli’s conquering of the London musical scene and, according to legend, so enchanted Senesino when Farinelli sang it in the first-night performance that the great alto castrato broke character and embraced the younger singer, much to the delight of the audience.  ‘Son qual nave’ is hardly unknown to 21st-Century listeners, but Mr. Hansen sings a rediscovered manuscript version of the aria which features obbligato horns and Farinelli’s own ornaments, noted in the singer’s hand.  [Mr. Hansen employs a combination of Farinelli’s and his own ornaments.]  The aria’s alternation of time-suspending cantilena passages with cascades of roulades is perfect for Mr. Hansen, as it apparently was for Farinelli: singing with absolute mastery of the music, Mr. Hansen rips through the aria in stunning fashion, artfully but never willfully ornamenting the da capo after reaching dizzying heights in his B-section cadenza.  Some of the finest singers of Baroque music—Cecilia Bartoli, Verónica Cangemi, and Simone Kermes among them—have recorded ‘Son qual nave,’ but none has surpassed the performance given here by Mr. Hansen.

Antonio Maria Bononcini’s opera Griselda was first performed in Milan in 1718.  The rôle of Gualtiero was created by alto castrato Domenico Tempesti, about whose career almost no details survive.  Gualtiero’s recitative ‘In te, sposa, Griselda, carnefice mi uccido’ and aria ‘Cara sposa, col tuo core’ in Act Three suggest that Tempesti was a very fine singer.  Building upon a beautiful string ritornello, ‘Cara sposa, col tuo core’ is a an exquisitely expansive aria, its harmonic progression expressive of touching pathos.  Mr. Hansen’s voice glows with the character’s affection for his maligned wife, the plaintive sound of his voice proving very touching.  In the aria’s B-section, ‘Sol resiste nel fier dolore,’ Mr. Hansen effectively contrasts his upper and lower registers.  His tasteful embellishment of the da capo enhances the depths of emotion that he brings to his performance of the aria, one that deserves a place alongside the greatest of Händel’s ‘pathetic airs’ in the repertories of the best singers of Baroque music.

Gaetano Majorano (1710 – 1783), known as Caffarelli, was, like Farinelli, a pupil of Nicola Porpora, who considered Caffarelli the finer singer.  The tessitura of the music composed for Caffarelli by Leonardo Leo suggests that the Bitonto-born castrato—one of the few castrati whose enjoyment of singing as a boy was such that he asked to be castrated—had a range similar to that of Farinelli.  Certainly, Oreste’s aria ‘Talor che irato e il vento’ from Leo’s opera Andromaca, premièred in Naples in 1742, makes considerable demands on the singer’s upper extension.  Mr. Hansen meets these demands with ringing tone and confident management of the melodic line’s tricky intervals and staccato effects.  The final cadenza covering slightly more than two octaves is a formidable example of Mr. Hansen’s vocal prowess.  Caffarelli also participated in the first performance of Leo’s Demetrio in 1732, again in Naples, and the aria ‘Freme orgogliosa l’onda’—sung by Olinto, created by soprano castrato Giovanni Manzuoli (1720 – 1782)—shows that Leo’s bravura style changed little in the subsequent decade.  The vocal leaps are here even wider, and tones at the top of his range approached without the benefit of preparation are occasionally snatched out of the stratosphere with apparent effort, but Mr. Hansen maintains the integrity of the line throughout the aria.  His preference for an understated resolution to the B-section enables his placement of top notes—including his superb top B-flat—and negotiation of ornaments in the da capo to dazzle all the more.  His singing of a trill high in the voice in the final cadenza is reminiscent of feats brought off by Maria Callas in La Sonnambula, not those of a countertenor.

Leonardo Vinci was one of Italy’s most celebrated composers of operas in the 18th Century, and performances of his operas attracted top talent.  Semiramide riconosciuta was first performed in Rome in 1729 with Giacinto Fontana (1692 – 1739), known as Farfallino, in the title rôle—a prominent example of a soprano castrato singing the part of a female heroine—and Carlo Scalzi (circa 1700 – after 1738), also a soprano castrato, as Mirteo.  The aria ‘In braccio a mille furie,’ sung by Mirteo in Act Three is a thrilling number with trumpets, and Mr. Hansen brings to his singing of the aria precisely the ringing martial quality that the music requires.  ‘Risveglia lo sdegno,’ sung by Poro in Act Three of Vinci’s Alessandro nell’Indie, premièred in Rome in 1730 with Giovanni Carestini (circa 1704 – circa 1760) as Poro, is a bravura showpiece similar in range and musical profile to ‘In braccio a mille furie.’  Mr. Hansen’s technique faces extreme tests, but his singing proves equal to the composer’s challenges.  Vinci’s Il Medo, premièred in Parma on the occasion of a ducal wedding in 1728 with Bernacchi in the title rôle and Farinelli as Giasone, is the most explored opera on this disc, and Vinci’s music justifies the opera’s prominence.  Giasone’s aria ‘Sento due flamme in petto’ is another time-stopping slow number, the singer seconded by a richly-scored obbligato oboe.  Mr. Hansen sings the aria with heartrending intensity of expression, his long-breathed phrasing building from the opening descent from D at the top of the staff to the G a fifth below to create impeccable arcs of sound.  Medo’s lilting aria ‘Taci o di morte,’ the accompaniment aptly conveying the nuances of the text, also makes use of an expansive vocal line launched by a descending figure suspended by a fermata, and Mr. Hansen takes advantage of this device to beautifully execute crescendo and decrescendo effects.  Here and elsewhere, the accuracy of Mr. Hansen’s intonation ensures that chromatic harmonies are sounded with full potency.  The ease with which he descends into his lower register in ‘Taci o di morte’ without the baritonal snarling heard in the lower voices of many countertenors is beguiling.  Interestingly, ‘Non è più folle lusinga’ breathes the same musical air as slow arias from Vivaldi’s operas.  The poise with which Mr. Hansen sings the aria highlights the gracefulness of Vinci’s melodic invention.  As in his singing of all of the arias on this disc, Mr. Hansen’s voice shimmers as he moves into his upper register in ‘Non è più folle lusinga,’ particularly in his attractive embellishments of the da capo.

Recitals of music composed for Farinelli and other famed castrati are no longer infrequent occurrences: with the advent of a generation of gifted countertenors capable of stylishly singing the music in the proper register, increased attention has been granted to this long-neglected repertory by female singers, as well.  In the high-lying music written for soprano castrati like Farinelli and Caffarelli, the efforts of female singers have often been preferable to those of countertenors, in fact, the voices of the latter being ill-equipped for the tessitura of the music.  In this regard, David Hansen is indubitably an exceptional singer: the sparkling brightness and facile placement of his upper register is one of the glories of his artistry.  As this début recital disc proves, though, he has far more to offer than top notes that shame the efforts of his high-voiced male colleagues.  It is obvious that he has devoted much study to the arias sung in this recital, and his resourcefulness in adapting his technique to the demands of each number, ensuring that all of the arias are ‘in the voice,’ is indicative of an innate musical curiosity that is likely to continue producing incredible performances as his career progresses.  The inquisitive modern listener has only the late-career recordings by Alessandro Moreschi, the last castrato in the Sistine Chapel choir, to provide a glimpse into the elusive world of the great castrati, and sadly Moreschi’s surviving recordings offer but a feeble view.  It is impossible to know how the voices of Farinelli, Bernacchi, Caffarelli, and their rivals sounded in the arias on this disc: it is doubtful that even they could have sung this music better than David Hansen has done on Rivals.