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.