Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Arias for Male Soprano
Idomeneo, K366, Overture [4.28], Ah qual gelido orror…..Il padre adorato [3.48]
Lucio Silla, K135, Dunque sperar poss’io…..Il tenero momento [10.24], Ah se a morir mi chiama [8.50]
La Clemenza di Tito, K621, Overture [4.45], Deh per questo istante solo [6.25], Parto, ma tu ben mio [6.22]
Exsultate, Jubilate, K165, Allegro [4.31], Recitative [0.51], Andante [7.24], Allegro: Alleluja [2.39]
Michael Maniaci (male soprano)
Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman
rec. Mechanics Hall, Worchester, MA, USA, 5-7 February 2009, DSD
Booklet notes and artists’ biographies in English only, original sung texts included with translations into English
TELARC TEL-31827-02 [61.01]
I love Mozart’s music in general but, most of all, I love his operas: the works from his teenage years, which offer many enjoyable moments, and especially the masterpieces that he created later: the operas composed to Da Ponte’s librettos. Therefore, I tend to jump at the opportunity of reviewing any new recordings of Mozart’s arias, particularly by voices that I have never heard before. This was the main reason why I really wanted to review Michael Maniaci’s CD but not the only one! After having read a considerable amount of very different and often contradictory comments regarding his voice, I felt curious and wanted to form my own judgements.
Maniaci is a talented young man but he faces a double challenge: he will have to beat not only other male and female singers of the same repertoire but also the prejudice, which some people will feel even before listening to him; simply because he is a male soprano. The words “male” and “soprano” do not usually go together and mutually exclude each other. If one is a soprano then one must be a woman and if a man sings with a distinctively feminine voice then is because he is singing falsetto and therefore he is not a soprano but a counter-tenor. Mozart and generally all 18th century composers wrote for male sopranos, the celebrated castrati who were at the peak of their fame during this period but, as we all know, were submitted to an operation to castrate them before puberty. Therefore, these boys did not develop into manhood as any other males would. Naturally this is not Maniaci’s case. He states that his voice did not change during puberty like the rest of his body and that doctors found that his larynx and vocal chords had not lengthened or thickened in the normal way. Whatever the reason, he does possess a rather unusual voice.
I have read countless articles and reviews about Maniaci’s voice, arguing whether it is really natural or not and, if so, why did he turn out a soprano instead of a tenor or any other common male voice. I think that too much emphasis has been put on why his voice is the way it is rather than his singing. So, I decided not to go into it for two reasons: I have no medical knowledge or background and I don’t think it matters. Michael Maniaci can definitely sing and he can sing rather well. The arias featured here are all pieces that Mozart composed for castrati. These are not only musically beautiful but also difficult to execute convincingly. And this Maniaci manages to do throughout most of the disc.
The booklet notes state that “... Maniaci’s soprano voice gives us the chance to hear something closer to the descriptions of old [of the castrato voice]...”! It may well be true but I suppose we will never know. The point is however that Maniaci is an assured, accomplished singer; he possesses a solid coloratura, his transitions from piano to forte and back again are seamless and his voice appears very comfortable in its highest register. Personally though, I did not always find it beautiful. Occasionally, he suffers from the same problem as countertenors when they reach the upper register of their voices, which is the fact that they lack power because the notes are purely head notes, without chest resonance to sustain them. So, Maniaci’s top notes sometimes sound forced, strident and slightly distorted, which spoils the beauty of line that he undoubtedly possesses. On the other hand, his middle range is considerably more attractive, with a purer sound. In some of the pieces, he also demonstrates other superb qualities: the recitatives are exquisitely and clearly phrased; his legato is excellent and he is dramatically very expressive.
Maniaci’s voice suits the Mozart repertoire, which he chose for this disc, as well as any other roles written for soprano castratos, namely some of Handel’s, but it must be said that he faces fierce competition from some great female sopranos and mezzos, as well as from some countertenors. His delivery of Deh per questo instante solo from “La Clemenza di Tito”, for example, compares unfavourably with that of Cecilia Bartoli, in her Decca recording of Mozart arias from 1991. Another piece where Maniaci’s performance again loses to a female voice is in the beautiful aria Il tenero momento from “Lucio Silla”, which I compared with that of Kristina Hammarström in Adam Fisher’s full recording of the opera for the Dacapo label in 2001-02. Both women sing effortless in the upper register, with a beautifully clear, ringing tone, simultaneously moving and harmonious while I found that Maniaci sometimes lacked these qualities. On occasions, the sentiment and delicate phrasing, which in my opinion are required in Mozart, were also missing from his interpretations. I liked his rendition of Il padre adorato from “Idomeneo”; however, I must say that I still prefer the version by Léopold Simoneau from 1951 when he sang and recorded the role live at Glyndebourne. I am however rather partial to the tenor voice, especially one as clear and beautiful as Simoneau’s. On stage, I think Maniaci may have the upper hand over his female counterparts, meaning that the roles were after all originally written for men; and women are not always believable or convincing in male roles. Maniaci is a good-looking young man; he sings with dramatic expression and these are attributes that will play to his advantage; the only thing I would say is that he needs to improve his diction, which is not always clear; occasionally, making it impossible to tell what language he is singing in.
Having said all that, I think this CD of Mozart arias is actually an excellent effort by Maniaci, wonderfully accompanied by the Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman who also wrote the very informative booklet notes. Pearlman is a distinguished conductor but also a composer and an expert in early music. This expertise comes through in the technically flawless performance of the orchestra, playing on period instruments, which lends more authenticity to the music and Maniaci’s performance.
In the end, whether one buys this recording of Michael Maniaci or not will probably come down to personal taste or, in some cases, how one views or feels about a male soprano. To my mind, prejudice has no place in appreciating somebody’s artistry. Maniaci is undoubtedly talented; there is a lot to be enjoyed in his singing, and his interpretation of Mozart’s music shows great musicianship and clear understanding of the composer’s scores. And although, I prefer some of the arias in this disc performed by other singers, I must say that I enjoyed the work as a whole. Maniaci is a pleasant revelation: he is technically very strong, with an impressive vocal range and it is refreshing to hear something different. It is difficult to say if he will be able to make a big career, bearing in mind the exceptional competition that he faces; however, his belief in his own ability and the determination, which he seems to possess, should eventually be rewarded and he may well achieve great success.