02 May 2015

CD REVIEW: THE 5 COUNTERTENORS – Eighteenth-Century Opera Arias (M.E. Cenčić, Y. Mynenko, V. Sabadus, X. Sabata, V. Yi; DECCA 478 8094)

CD REVIEW: THE 5 COUNTERTENORS (DECCA 478 8094)JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735 – 1782), FERDINANDO BERTONI (1725 – 1813), BALDASSARE GALUPPI (1706 – 1785), CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787), GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783), NICCOLÒ JOMMELLI (1714 – 1774), JOSEF MYSLIVEČEK (1737 – 1781), and NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768): The 5 Countertenors – Eighteenth-Century Opera AriasMax Emanuel Cenčić, Yuriy Mynenko, Valer Sabadus, Xavier Sabata, and Vince Yi, countertenors; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 12, 13, and 15 – 18 July 2013; DECCA 478 8094; 1 CD, 63:46; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin expanded the focus of their work sixty years ago to include not only the liturgical repertory and Elizabethan lute songs considered the only natural territory for their voices but also the Baroque opera and oratorio arias long commandeered by contraltos and mezzo-sopranos, it is unlikely that even these visionary artists foresaw that, by the turn of the Twenty-First Century, countertenors would be winning major prizes and competitions, singing leading rôles in many of the world’s opera houses, and making recordings for major labels of repertory ranging from Cavalli to Cage. Though the male alto or countertenor voice, a painstaking refinement of a man’s natural falsetto register, has been a distinct vocal classification from the beginnings of opera and vocal music in the modern sense, much of the music with which countertenors are now associated was originally composed for castrati. The quintet of voices heard on DECCA’s The 5 Countertenors could not have been better chosen to illustrate the differences among singers of this voice type, and the ten arias on the disc span nearly seventy years of repertory. Presenting music originally composed for both male and female singers, this disc offers perspectives on the development of voice types in opera and on the part that countertenors have played in music during the past sixty years. Before the revival of interest in Baroque opera, Benjamin Britten’s composition of the rôle of Oberon in his Midsummer Night’s Dream for Alfred Deller ushered countertenors back into the world’s opera houses and initiated a renewed energy for writing for the countertenor voice that has continued into the Twenty-First Century. Furthered by pioneering singers such as James Bowman, Michael Chance, Gérard Lesne, and Derek Lee Ragin, the Countertenor Revolution is now led by accomplished singers from all parts of the world. Recorded in Athens with DECCA’s usual technical flair, The 5 Countertenors is a fun disc on which five talented singers, expertly supported by Armonia Atenea and George Petrou, show off their vocal and histrionic virtuosity. This is not a recital of shallow displays of ego in aria form, however. The 5 Countertenors is a banquet of a style of singing at once old and new, served by five of its finest exponents.

Born in South Korea, raised in California, and an alumnus of the University of Michigan, where David Daniels’s countertenorial gifts were discovered and polished, Vince Yi is a cosmopolitan gentleman with a beautiful voice of silvery delicacy. His performance of the title character's ‘Ti parli in seno amore' from Josef Mysliveček's Farnace, first sung in 1767 in Naples by soprano castrato Carlo Reina, is soft-grained but incisive. Reminiscent of the young Mozart’s music for the character of the same name in his Mitridate, rè di Ponto, Mysliveček’s vocal writing puts Mr. Yi’s technique to the test, and while the relative weakness of his lower register is a liability his confidence on high is a decided strength. His mastery of the coloratura is not yet complete, but he gives his all to the performance and earns respect for the earnestness of his efforts. The hero’s ‘Ah, non è ver, ben mio’ from Johann Adolf Hasse's 1768 Ovid-inspired intermezzo Piramo e Tisbe in handled capably by Mr. Yi. By Eighteenth-Century standards, the composer was an old man when he wrote Piramo e Tisbe for private performance on an estate near Vienna, but his creative genius was unimpaired by time. Mr. Yi’s basic timbre makes Hasse’s sensitive Piramo sound rather wan, more in the fashion of Shakespeare’s and Britten’s rustics’ comically inept but ultimately profoundly touching telling of the story than of Ovid’s. Here, too, the young countertenor sings enthusiastically, however, the vowels on the breath and the consonants crisp but unexaggerated. The natural vocal material is of great quality, and he will surely prove an even more valuable artist as his craft is refined through experience.

Xavier Sabata’s piquant Catalan spirit emanates from every note that he sings, whether emitted in plaintive sorrow, gnawing perfidy, or sultry seduction. He makes a specialty of portraying Baroque operatic villains, but the smoky sexiness of his singing grants him a disquieting credibility as a musical lover and dashing hero. As Agamennone in Nicola Porpora’s Ifigenia in Aulide, created in London in 1735 by Senesino, he plumbs the melodramatic depths of the recitative ‘O di spietati numi più spietato ministro!’ The bursts of coloratura in the aria ‘Tu, spietato, non farai cader vittima’ are dispatched with with awesome ease, but the explosive tones at the crests of phrases sometimes upset the balance of the vocal line. Still, he is the despondent father to the life, and the tessitura of Porpora’s music suits him perfectly, his singing notable for the absence of the awkwardness that male and female singers often cannot avoid in parts written for Senesino. Ottone in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Agrippina was sung in the opera’s first production in Venice in 1709 by contralto Francesca Vanini-Boschi, a singer who worked with Händel in Italy and in London despite being described by contemporaries as having possessed an unremarkable voice. Ottone is quite a rôle to have been entrusted to a singer with a less-than-first-rate voice! Mr. Sabata reveals what a singer with a first-rate voice can achieve in Ottone's music. The bracing power of his articulation of the recitative ‘Otton, Otton’ prepares the listener for the incredible expressivity of his voicing of ‘Voi che udite il mio lamento,’ one of the young Händel’s finest inspirations. Even removed from the context of the full opera, Mr. Sabata’s affectionately-shaped singing and concentrated emotion garner sympathy for Ottone’s plight. The opportunity to observe this aspect of the singer’s artistry is most welcome and will hopefully engender many more similar opportunities in future. How wonderful it would be to occasionally hear Mr. Sabata as characters who get the girls and live happily ever after rather than exclusively as those who live and die by the sword!

A native of Arad, Romania, Valer Sabadus has emerged as one of the leading interpreters of the daunting music in the gallant style of the neglected generation of composers active in the years between the waning of the Baroque and the height of Classicism. This is an extremely rich and still largely untapped reservoir of great music. Though modern performances rarely feature countertenors in music composed after 1770, castrati maintained a considerable though diminishing presence in Italian opera until the 1820s, Rossini and Meyerbeer writing prominent rôles for castrati in the tradition extending back to Gualberto Magli, one of the first operatic castrati. Like Mysliveček, Niccolò Jommelli was an innovator whose musical language was considerably more advanced than that of many of his contemporaries. In the bravura writing and wide intervals of Manlio's ‘Spezza lo stral piagato’ from the 1746 Venetian version of Jommelli's Tito Manlio, first sung by the castrato Gioacchino Conti (better known as Gizziello), Mr. Sabadus makes a vivid impression. Braving the divisions without hesitation, he gives evidence of a well-honed artistic intelligence with his alertness to the shifting nuances of text, and his sparse vibrato in passagework allows the composer’s chromaticism to make its full effect. Written for Felice Salimbeni in Venice in 1742, the title character’s pensive ‘Non so frenare il pianto’—sung whilst he is disguised as Alceste—from Gluck's Demetrio is imaginatively sung by Mr. Sabadus, his excellent breath control facilitating stunning feats of phrasing. The unadorned simplicity of the principal theme contrasts meaningfully with the brief but robust B section, and Mr. Sabadus maximizes the dramatic significance of the da capo. His voice is a fine instrument over which he wields meticulous control, and his performances on this disc are exemplary examples of the transitional musical idioms of an unjustly-overlooked period in operatic history.

Hailing from Ukraine, Yuriy Mynenko is one of the foremost discoveries of recent seasons. With a bright timbre and exceptional comfort in music of fiendish difficulty, he promises to make an enduring impact in the realm of countertenor singing. His negotiation of the punishing pyrotechnics of the title character's ‘Crude furie degl'orridi abissi’ from Händel's Serse, débuted in 1738 in London by Caffarelli, is sure of intonation and rhythmic accuracy, and the gleaming edge on the tone aids him in creating a sharp dramatic profile in the duration of a single aria. The rôle of Lisimaco in Johann Christian Bach’s 1772 Temistocle was created in the opera’s Mannheim première by soprano castrato Silvio Giorgetti, who was obviously a fantastic singer. The stirring ‘Ch'io parta?’ is delivered by Mr. Mynenko with consummate gusto and vocal freedom. Like Mr. Yi and Mr. Sabadus, he brings to his work a soft-grained voice anchored by an impenetrably strong technical foundation, and he succeeds in appealingly conveying the swaggering masculinity of the music without hardening his lovely tone quality.

The links between the great castrati of the past and countertenor singing present and future are thrillingly exemplified by Max Emanuel Cenčić. Born into a musical family (his mother is a gifted soprano and teacher, his father an esteemed conductor, and his sister a powerhouse chanteuse), he was a participant in a centuries-old musical tradition from an early age as a member and frequent treble soloist with the Wiener Sängerknaben. His early recordings as a Sängerknabe and an adolescent male soprano reveal surprising artistic maturity. Not yet forty, he is one of the world’s greatest singers—not merely among countertenors—owing both to his exceptional voice and to interpretive sensibilities that lend his work uncommon dramatic and expressive power. Beyond the confines of Baroque repertory, he made the supporting rôle of the Herold in Aribert Reimann’s Medea a vitally important one in the opera’s 2010 world première at the Wiener Staatsoper, but it is in his Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century repertory—a gallery of handsomely-drawn portraits ranging from Monteverdi’s Nerone and Ottone to Händel’s Andronico and Sesto and Hasse’s Siroe—that his endeavors are unfailingly unforgettable. Premièred by Angelo Maria Monticelli in London in 1741, Telemaco's exquisite ‘A questa bianca mano’ from Baldassare Galuppi's Penelope is a superb vehicle for Mr. Cenčić, the meandering melodic line enabling full appreciation of the uncommon evenness of his voice. Sounding slightly darker than in past, his timbre is uniquely poised for exploring conflicting emotions, and his moving account of Telemaco’s aria, notable for his tastefully understated ornamentation, is resolved by a restrained, poetically-phrased cadenza. Most known for its appearance in Gluck’s 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice (as ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,’ later adapted again as ‘Amour, viens rendre à mon âme’) for the famous haute-contre Joseph Legros, the name part’s showpiece aria ‘Addio, o miei sospiri’ from Ferdinando Bertoni's 1767 Tancredi is another piece that was first interpreted—in Bertoni’s setting, at least—by Carlo Reina. [Scholars continue to debate the true origins of the aria. Whilst in London in the 1770s, Bertoni vehemently asserted that the aria was his own work, lifted by Gluck from an earlier score, but surviving evidence suggests that the music first appeared with different text in Gluck’s serenata Il Parnasso confuso, performed at Schönbrunn on 24 January 1765, when it was sung by one of the young Hapsburg archduchesses, and was subsequently reused in the central portion, Aristeo, of the 1769 Le feste d’Apollo.] Neither Reina nor Legros could have sung the number more authoritatively than Mr. Cenčić, who commands both the fiorature and the tessitura demanded by the music with unassailable assurance. The exhilarating precision of his coloratura is only one facet of his shimmering performance: equally pulse-quickening is the immediacy of his enunciation of text, which is not disrupted by even the most challenging passages. Considering his youth, it seems stupid to suggest that Mr. Cenčić is the ‘elder statesman’ of The 5 Countertenors, but among his colleagues here he is the seasoned veteran. Having already been a serious artist at an age at which most people are concerned with schoolhouse gossip and wearing the right brands of clothes, he is now a prime example of a man whose life is dedicated to his art.

For some listeners, the countertenor voice will perhaps always be an acquired taste. What The 5 Countertenors makes marvelously apparent is that ‘the countertenor voice’ is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic array of colors and patterns, no more defined by the singular sound of a particular singer than any other Fach. As much as it is impossible to know to what extent today’s countertenors echo the sounds produced by the castrati of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, it is difficult to imagine whether Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin imagined that some of the world’s most acclaimed singers in 2015 would be countertenors. The 5 Countertenors is a sensational souvenir of this musical brave new world.