Countertenors Victorious in Copenhagen

Copenhagen Opera House
High Flying Singing: Copenhagen’s Baroque Feast
Last week in the Danish capital city, still chilly after freezing weather and heavy snow, the spirits were raised by two contrasting but equally fulfilling events in the shape of the Danish Royal Opera’s revival of Francisco Negrin’s production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” featuring the return of star European countertenor Andreas Scholl in the title role, and the debut appearance in the city of his American counterpart, David Daniels, in a concert performance of Bach and Vivaldi. Both singers were in fact enjoying indulging their talents in their less well known fachs: Scholl is rarely seen on the opera stage and admits to feeling less than completely at home there. Daniels, on the other hand, fresh from yet another Handelian triumph at the Metropolitan Opera (Bertarido in the sumptuous new production of “Rodelinda”) is not known as a Bach specialist, but was essaying his second concert performance in Europe of the great cantata BWV82, “Ich Habe Genug”, reviewed elsewhere.
This taking over of Copenhagen by the men who sing high was augmented by two others: Chris Robson, also reprising his acting tour de force in the role of Tolomeo alongside Scholl, and a fascinating newcomer to the European opera scene in the form of young Michael Maniaci, a true male soprano in the small but pivotal role of Nireno. He was one of only two cast members new to the production, the other being John Lundgren as Curio. Once again, Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducted the baroque orchestra Concerto Copenhagen, this time more fully equipped in the horn section and sounding more comfortable in the most demanding of Handel’s intricacies.
From a box-office point of view, this was a revival to ensure good returns on a known success story and it did not fail to come up with the goods in that department. Vocally too, the entire returning cast of Scholl, Inger Dam Jensen (Cleopatra), Randi Stene (Cornelia), Tuva Semmingsen (Sesto), Palle Knudsen (Achilla) all sounded far more in concert with both staging and each other, and many of the first-run lacunae have been filled or re-jigged to work more smoothly. However, it was also obvious that this staging still has its limitations and oddities that strike an uncomfortable note – the dead shark’s appearance to loud audience laughter just prior to the emotionally-draining aria from an imprisoned Cornelia is still a dramatic disaster, whilst some of the more obvious visual jokes pall quickly.
Vocally, the stand outs were Semmingsen and Scholl. The young mezzo has matured vocally and dramatically and now makes a stunningly effective Sesto, showing great understanding of Handelian sensibilities yet also displaying confident cadenzas and ornaments all her own. She is lucky to have the build and features that adapt well to this part, and should be able to take this role almost anywhere in the world, should she wish to. Scholl’s many fans were not disappointed by his performances during the first week – his renowned tone and technique, not to mention upstanding physique, fit this role extremely well, and there were some glorious moments once he had warmed up. If his “Aure, deh per pieta” lacked a little in legato silkiness compared to the first run, his singing in “Se Infiorito”, the “duet” with the violinist on stage, was particularly elegant, charming and effortlessly virtuosic and also showed that he is now, at this stage of his career, beginning to feel more comfortable on the opera stage. A slight tendency to wave the hands around in moments of high emotion remains, but overall this was a much more satisfying dramatic performance than three years ago.
One young singer who will not have any such concerns on the dramatic front is Michael Maniaci – at 28 years old he is already showing an amazing ability to hold the eye whilst doing virtually nothing on the stage, coupled with an exciting strong true male soprano voice that promises much in roles written for the higher castratos of Handel’s time. He has already had significant successes in such roles and as Monteverdi’s Nerone in the United States (Wolf Trap, Glimmerglass, Chicago Opera Theatre ) as well as a much-discussed Cherubino at Pittsburg, and this was his European debut in a large house. Unlike in the original production three years ago, Nireno’s one aria in Act 2 “Chi pede un momento” has been restored for Maniaci to sing, and he took full advantage of this opportunity. If the voice was still a little unfocused and uncontrolled from time to time, he showed excellent intonation, strength and true colour. One could look forward to hearing him in the title role of a major production Xerxes one day, and certainly as Sesto in the near future. Could this voice be the next big thing on the baroque opera scene, in the way that Daniels was a decade ago? Certainly it is an exciting prospect to whet the appetite of aficionados of the genre.
(c) Sue Loder 2005