> Arias for Farinelli [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768)

Orfeo: Dall’amor più sventurato
Riccardo BROSCHI (c.1698-1756)

Idaspe: Ombra fedele anch’io, Qual guerriero in campo
Geminiano GIACOMELLI (c.1692-1740)

Adriano in Siria: Mancare Dio mi sento
Baldassare GALUPPI (1706-1785)
Concerto à 4 in c

Polifemo: Oh volesser gli Dei … Dolci freschi aurette
Added aria in Hasse’s Ataserse: Or la nube procellosa
Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783)

Artaserse: Per questo dolce amplesso

Merope: Quell’usignolo
Vivica Genaux (mezzo-soprano), Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
Recorded January 2002, Teldex-Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 901778 [77’ 35"]

part (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7),(8),(9)]

What is a mezzo soprano (9)?

Whatever a mezzo-soprano is, you may feel, Farinelli certainly wasn’t one. But since there are no castrati around to sing this music, here is another young mezzo-soprano ready to seize the opportunity to explore some off-the-beaten-track repertoire.

This disc, like Cecilia Bartoli’s recent Gluck record, is an all-round product where the research and presentation stand on an equal footing with the CD itself. The tri-lingual booklet runs to 66 pages, including a well-written (and translated) article on Farinelli himself by Reinhard Strohm and – the real gem – a fascinating, detailed, provocative and authoritative article by René Jacobs himself entitled "There are no castratos left, what now?"

First of all, Jacobs points out, male falsetto voices, "wrongly described as ‘countertenors’," already existed in baroque times and were accepted as a replacement for alto castrati, in Handel’s "Giulio Cesare" for instance. They were not admitted as replacements for soprano (or mezzo-soprano) castrati because they in no way corresponded to the ideal laid down for such voices as early as 1474 by Conrad von Zabern – the voice should sound "large and powerful in the low register, of moderate volume in the middle register and increasingly softer in the higher reaches" – and still maintained by Hiller, a successor of Bach at Leipzig, in the 1780s. You will immediately notice that this is very far from more recent concepts of singing, which aim at making a whopping great sound in the upper register, and it would certainly be no way to sing Azucena or Amneris. It was, however, the type of voice production aimed at by those mezzo-sopranos, described as contralti musici, who began to appear from the end of the 18th century as counterparts of the soprano castrati, women singing as men, as opposed to men singing as women. With castrati already a doomed species, Rossini cast the leading role in "Tancredi" for a contralto musico, thus supporting Jacobs’s argument that the nearest aural equivalent to a castrato is in fact a mezzo-soprano. Not, of course, an opera-battered heavy taking time off between "Trovatore" and "Carmen", but one who has made a special study of the type of voice production advocated by Zabern and Hiller. A strong point in his argument is that both castrati and mezzo-sopranos make a mix of chest and natural registers to give strength and warmth to their lower notes, something which the falsettist cannot do at all.

All this is quite fascinating and Jacobs’s essay is worth the price of the disc for its own sake. So how far does Vivica Genaux illustrate his thesis? Well, in the last aria she does oblige with a long-held chesty low A, but for the most part her lower register is quite strong and warm enough not to need much chest to help it out. Her upper notes are sweet and unforced and the voice is consistent in quality throughout its range. Thus far so good. Furthermore she has an agility which, in Giacomelli’s usignolo (nightingale) aria, is quite phenomenal, so effortless does it sound. And this without resorting to the insertion of aspirates, as Cecilia Bartoli does, to give extra ping to the individual notes.

One aria seems hard going even for her, "Qual guerriero in campo armato" by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi. This exploits another Farinelli speciality, whacking great leaps, and here Genaux appears unable to get away from a more "modern" production of the higher note in each leap, with the result that it comes out a little as if someone has trodden on her tail. Still, it’s a brave stab at an almost impossible piece.

I wondered about a couple of things. Jacobs does not touch on the question of vibrato. Do these old treatises give us any idea of the attitude of castrati towards this? Genaux doesn’t use much, but I was a little surprised she used any at all and since her trill is a tight one it she is within hailing distance of the Bartoli territory where vibrato and trill end up pretty much the same thing.

Another question is that of the vowels. Again, do the old treatises give us any idea of what was expected at the time? I say this because Genaux’s "a" (to rhyme with "baa") has a slightly snarling quality and I wondered if this is deliberate. Italians today certainly prefer a warmer vowel sound.

If these are queries rather than criticisms, I have to point out that consonants are not always clear. For example, in the opening recitative of "Quell’usignolo" the last word is "amore" (for some reason the booklet omits to print these few lines – for the rest texts and translations are provided). But the "m" is so lightly sketched in, Sutherland-like, as to seem almost a "w". And finally, Genaux seems uncertain as to whether the Italian "ch" is hard as in "choir" or soft as in "church" (it is always hard). Mostly she gets it right but when she sang, in the second aria, "anch’io" with the "ch" of "church" and throughout the piece alternated between soft and hard I can only say I was amazed. Don’t singers have language coaches to deal with this sort of thing? One tries not to be too pernickety when a singer is not singing her native language but if you heard an Italian singing English and one moment she sang "anchovies" and the next moment she sang "ankovies", you would surely feel she might have taken the trouble to get it right, especially on a record.

My last comment is that I don’t find a great deal of personality in this fluent and technically very accomplished singing, something which Bartoli certainly has, whatever you think of her. For this perhaps we should wait to hear Genaux in music we know better, Mozart or Rossini (she has sung Rosina at the Met). All the same, she is a name to watch.

The booklet does not explain what a purely orchestral concerto by Galuppi is doing in the middle of the programme, but it does provide a nice interlude. It also lets us hear in full measure that while Jacobs may be an original-instruments purist in that he keeps everything light and detached, when it comes to dynamics and phrasing he is an out-and-out interventionist. Fortunately he is also very musical and what he does seems to work. The Galuppi is also, dare I say it, the best music in the programme, though I also thought Porpora’s "Dolci freschi aurette" a very lovely piece. For the rest, this is the type of music which is intended to be fodder for the singer, and succeeds perfectly in this.

Christopher Howell

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