Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.

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 rÙles 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 RenÈ 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 dÈbut 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 rÙles 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 rÙle 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 rÙles—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 dÈbut 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

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, VerÛnica 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 rÙle 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 H‰ndel’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, premiËred 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 rÙle—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, premiËred 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,
premiËred in Parma on the occasion of a ducal wedding in 1728 with Bernacchi
in the title rÙle 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 Ë pi˘ 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 Ë pi˘ 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 dÈbut 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.

Joseph Newsome

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, MondovÏ, Italy, 12 – 16 June 2013; deutsche
harmonia mundi 88883744012; 1CD, 76:17]

image_description=Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.
product_title=Rivals—Arias for Farinelli & Co.
product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome
product_id=deutsche harmonia mundi 88883744012 [CD]