21 September 2013

CD REVIEW: ARIAS FOR CAFFARELLI (Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Naïve V 5333)

ARIAS FOR CAFFARELLI - Franco Fagioli, countertenor (Naïve V 5333)

PASQUALE CAFARO (circa 1716 – 1787) JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783), LEONARDO LEO (1694 – 1744), GENNARO MANNA (1715 – 1779), GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736), NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768), DOMENICO SARRO (1679 – 1744), and LEONARDO VINCI (1690 – 1730): Arias for Caffarelli—Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi [Recorded at the Villa San Fermo, Convento dei Pavoniani, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy, 25 August – 3 September 2012; Naïve V 5333; 1CD, 78:31; Available from Amazon, fnac, JPC, and all major music retailers]

If contemporary accounts of his demeanor can be trusted, Gaetano Majorano—born in 1710 in Bitonto in the Puglia region of Italy and better known to history as Caffarelli—could have given the most arrogant among the opera singers of the 21st Century pointers on enhancing their self-appreciation.  Unlike many of his 18th-Century rivals, Caffarelli enjoyed a certain level of privilege, his boyhood musical studies financed by the profits of two vineyards devoted to his tuition by his grandmother.  Perhaps most remarkable, especially in comparison with other celebrated castrati who invented elaborate tales of childhood illnesses and unfortunate encounters with unfriendly animals to account for their ‘altered’ states, is the fact that, having been sufficiently impressed by the quality of his puerile voice or convinced thereof by the praise of his tutors, Caffarelli volunteered himself for castration.  It is suggested that his most influential teacher, Porpora, with whom Farinelli also studied, was put off by Caffarelli’s arrogance but regarded him as the most talented of his pupils, reputedly having pronounced the castrato the greatest singer in Europe—a sentiment legitimately expressive of Porpora’s esteem for Caffarelli, perhaps, and surely a fine advertisement for his own services as composer and teacher.  Though none of his music from these operas is included on this disc, Caffarelli created the title rôles in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Faramondo and Serse, and it was likely with Caffarelli’s command of cantilena in mind that Händel composed Serse’s famous ‘Ombra mai fù.’  During the past decade, discs documenting Baroque specialist singers’ tributes to the ‘star’ singers of the 18th Century whose repertories they have reintroduced to the public have been anything but rare, but this bounty has explored little beyond the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  This ardor shaping this disc of arias composed for Caffarelli by composers both famous and forgotten burns so intensely that much of the floe that separates modern listeners from the sparkling days of Caffarelli’s vocal prime is melted, and the source of the heat is the fascinating, flickering voice of Franco Fagioli.

Mr. Fagioli is supported in this venture by an extraordinary musical community.  The disc’s concept is credited to Max Emanuel Cencic, perhaps the only countertenor singing today who can match Mr. Fagioli in bravura technique and timbral warmth, and a portion of the detailed, enjoyably informative liner notes was penned by respected fellow countertenor and teacher Nicholas Clapton.  Even at such an impressive feast, the music is the most tantalizing dish, and the foundation is laid for a wonderful performance by the playing of Il Pomo d’Oro.  Led by their concertmaster, Riccardo Minasi, the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d’Oro produce sounds of consistent beauty, the strings blending with careful balance.  The period woodwinds and horns are especially effective, the players proving masters of their instruments with performances that avoid the astringent sounds and imperfect intonation often heard from period winds.  The continuo is artfully anchored by harpsichordist Yu Yashima, and the theorbo and Baroque guitar playing by Simone Vallerotonda and Ivano Zanenghi is wonderfully imaginative.  It is obvious that Maestro Minasi has spent a great deal of time acquainting himself with the selections on this disc, as well as communicating with Mr. Fagioli about finer points of interpretation.  An atmosphere of close cooperation permeates this disc, a welcome suggestion of days past, when even the most famous musicians took advantage of collaborations to learn from one another and deepen their understanding of the music before them.  Recorded in a natural acoustic, the most intricate details of the music are audible, fully disclosing the insightfulness of the music-making from Mr. Fagioli, Maestro Minasi, and Il Pomo d’Oro.

Born in Argentina, Mr. Fagioli’s ascent to the zenith of his profession has been meteoric, and his gifts merit no less.  Just as it was to the career of Caffarelli, the music of Händel has been of great importance to the establishment of Mr. Fagioli as one of the most important countertenors singing today.  It was his singing of ‘Cara sposa’ from Händel’s Rinaldo that secured his victory in the 2003 NEUE STIMMEN International Singing Competition, a portion of his prize for which was the opportunity to record for the Bertelsmann Group—a sponsor of the Competition—a disc of Händel and Mozart arias.  That disc was an apt introduction to Mr. Fagioli’s smooth, seductive voice, which has taken on an even greater palette of colors since the time of that recording.  Arias for Caffarelli reveals an extraordinary voice that, despite the youth of its owner, is already in its prime, the slightly dark natural timbre blooming into a well-supported, platinum-hued upper register.  Like the castrati of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Mr. Fagioli seemingly possesses untold resources of breath control, and his faculty for sustaining expansive passages, whether those of broad cantilena or bravura runs, is stunning.  The programme for this disc was intelligently selected, the diverse styles of the music providing Mr. Fagioli with occasions to display each of the finest aspects of his artistry in turn.

The opening selections—‘Fra l’orror della tempesta’ and ‘Ebbi da te la vita’ from Hasse’s Siroe—launch the disc excitingly, displaying both Mr. Fagioli’s skills in rapid-fire coloratura and his way of finessing lines at slower tempi.  Though he is one of the more famous composers featured on Arias for Caffarelli, Hasse’s music remains far too little explored.  ‘Fra l’orror della tempesta,’ a spirited simile aria that tests the brass players almost as sorely as the singer, draws from Mr. Fagioli a rollicking performance of near-perfect bravura technique and offers the first outing of the genuine trill that serves him so well throughout the selections on this disc.  ‘Ebbi da te la vita,’ a more introverted piece that would not sound out of place in any of Haydn’s mature operas, is sung very beautifully by Mr. Fagioli, the melodic line expanding attractively from its start in the most gorgeous part of Mr. Fagioli’s voice.  The ‘halting’ effects in the melodic line are put to unmistakable dramatic use by the singer, and his modest embellishment of the da capo repeat is unfailingly musical.

The ambiguous sagas of Semiramis, the legendary queen of Assyria, have inspired composers virtually since the infancy of opera.  Though Rossini’s Semiramide is the complex lady’s operatic incarnation that is most familiar to 21st-Century audiences, Pietro Metastasio’s 1729 libretto Semiramide riconosciuta and Voltaire’s 1748 drama Sémiramis wielded enormous influence over composers of Baroque opera.  Porpora was the first composer to set Metastasio’s libretto, and Mr. Fagioli’s performance of ‘Passaggier che sulla sponda’ from Porpora’s Semiramide riconosciuta discloses in the composer’s music a compositional style clearly influenced by Corelli and Vivaldi.  The security with which Mr. Fagioli spans the aria’s wide intervals is splendid, his descents into his chest voice ringing and stylish.  The B section gives him little with which to work, but he spins out haunting sounds to conjure an environment of uncertainty that he resolves with his exuberant singing of the da capo.  Vinci’s Semiramide riconosciuta is even less remembered than Porpora’s setting of the text, which received a concert performance at Beaune in 2011, but the aria ‘In braccio a mille furie,’ a stirring number with trumpets and timpani, is thrillingly sung here.  The accuracy of Mr. Fagioli’s placement of tones in high-lying coloratura passages is formidable, and his fiery singing in the B section is brilliant.  There is a cadenza in the da capo in which Mr. Fagioli’s extravagant ornamentation is too much of a good thing, perfectly executed though it is, but his performance of the aria is unforgettable.

‘Misero pargoletto’ from Leo’s Demofoonte is a time-suspending, slightly exotic aria that breathes the same air as the slow movements of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater.  Mr. Fagioli phrases the aria with the breath control of a great bel canto singer, ascending into his upper register with particular radiance.  There are occasional vowel sounds that sound strangely disconnected from the rest of the voice, almost as though they were recorded in a different acoustic, but this detracts little from the sumptuous evenness of Mr. Fagioli’s registers.  The aria ‘Sperai vicino il lido’ from the same opera is one of the most enjoyable pieces on the disc, its opening ritornello and subtle melodic line evoking the early operas of Gluck contrasting effectively with the subsequent explosions of coloratura in the up-tempo sections.  This aria gives Mr. Fagioli ample opportunities to use his upper register to expressive effect, and the results that he achieves are fantastic.  Here, too, the final cadenza would have been better had it been slightly less florid, the roulades in Leo’s score having already proved the unquestionable supremacy of Mr. Fagioli’s technique, but the owner of such a voice can hardly be faulted for showing it off.

The plaintive, evocatively chromatic melody for oboe that begins ‘Lieto così talvolta’ from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria is arresting, and the limpidness of Mr. Fagioli’s singing of the aria’s primary theme is truly exquisite.  The simplicity of the melodic line, even when it is disturbed by the trills that Pergolesi deployed too frequently, exhibits the composer’s gifts for making much of modest resources.  Isolated high notes are produced with startling ease: a casual listener might well mistake the tones for those of a very gifted lyric soprano.  This is a long aria, but one that, like ‘He was despised’ in Händel’s Messiah, benefits from a slow tempo.  Mr. Fagioli and Maestro Minasi adopt a speed that perfectly matches the moods of the text and the music, and Mr. Fagioli’s sustained singing is awesome.  ‘Rendimi più sereno’ from Cafaro’s L’Ipermestra is also an expansive aria of great lyric stillness.  Mr. Fagioli’s delivery of the ascending strings of trills is extraordinary, and the serene poise with which he sustains tones high in the voice is mesmerizing.  Mr. Fagioli’s voice takes on a silvery sheen in the upper range, where the voices of most countertenors falter, and he complements this vocal strength with singing that ideally reflects the colors of texts.  This is also apparent in his singing of ‘Un cor che ben ama’ from Sarro’s Valdemaro, a veritable contest of wills with the [marvelously-played] trumpet.  Mr. Fagioli and the trumpeter let rip unrestrainedly, each musician matching the other with unfettered virtuosity.

‘Cara ti lascio, addio’ from Manna’s Lucio Vero ossia il vologeso begins with one of the long-sustained tones for which castrati were celebrated, delivered by Mr. Fagioli with inarguable firmness and beauty.  The bravura pieces on this disc are incandescent examples of a great singer at the height of his powers, but the slow arias offer glimpses of the soul of Mr. Fagioli’s artistry, and at least in the context of his insightful musicality it is obvious that he is an artist who feels very deeply.  Mr. Fagioli brings Arias for Caffarelli to a pulse-quickening close with his performance of ‘Odo il suono di tromba guerriera’ from Manna’s Lucio Papiro dittatore, a piece in which the ‘martial trumpet’ sets the pace for a barnstorming display of technique and the detonation of a series of top notes that amaze.  Even in this almost ridiculously difficult music, Mr. Fagioli’s performance transcends shallow display, his manner of singing reminding the listener that, as poets and philosophers have suggested, music expresses things at which words can but hint.

The most detailed contemporary descriptions of the voice of Caffarelli enable only an imperfect notion of how this unique singer must have sounded in performances of the music composed for him.  The combination of a bravura technique second to none with the range and purity of a boy’s voice and the lung capacity of a mature man is virtually unfathomable, especially for listeners whose musical experiences have been formed by exposure to the performance practices of the 20th Century.  Not so long ago, it was thought that the best method of recreating the voice of Farinelli, Caffarelli’s most celebrated rival, for the cinema was to electronically blend the voices of a countertenor and a female soprano.  The resulting sound was decidedly odd but intriguing.  Today, there are countertenors who seek to sing the music composed for higher-voiced castrati like Caffarelli and Farinelli at the original pitches and with something like the resounding glory for which these singers were renowned.  Perhaps, in actuality, the voice of Franco Fagioli sounds nothing like that of Caffarelli.  If, however, his illustrious predecessor sang the music on Arias for Caffarelli more shrewdly, tastefully, blazingly, and entrancingly than Franco Fagioli sings on this disc, he can hardly have been mortal.

Caffarelli [Etching in the collection of the the Royal College of Music, London] Caffarelli [Uncredited etching in the collection of the Royal College of Music]