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Opera arias from the 18th century

[I] "Farinelli - A portrait"
Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Les Talens Lyriques
Dir: Christophe Rousset
rec: May 26, 2011 (live), Bergen, Grieghallen
Aparté - AP117 (© 2016) (79'40")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Riccardo BROSCHI (1698-1756): Artaserse, opera (1734) (Son qual nave ch'agitata); Idaspe, opera (1730) (Ombra fedele anch'io); Geminiano GIACOMELLI (c1692-1740): Adriano in Siria, dramma per musica (1733) (Già presso al termine; Passagier che incerto); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Alcina (HWV 34), opera (1735) (Sta nell'Ircana); Rinaldo (HWV 7a) (opera, 1711) (Lascio ch'io pianga); Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Cleofide, opera (1731) (overture); Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Catone in Utica, tragedia per musica (1729) (Cervo in bosco; Che legge spietata); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Polifemo, melodramma (1735) (Alto Giove); Semiramide riconosciuta, dramma per musica (1729) (In braccio a mille furie; Si pietoso il tuo labro)

[II] "Arias for Nicolino"
Carlo Vistoli, alto
Talenti Vulcanici
Dir: Stefano Demicheli
rec: Nov 30 - Dec 4, 2015, Naples, Chiesa della Missione ai Vergini
Arcana - A 427 (© 2017) (62'26")
Liner-notes: E/F/I; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750): Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11), opera (1715) (sinfonia; T'amai, quant'il mio cor); Rinaldo (HWV 7a), opera (1711) (overture; prelude; Cara sposa, amante cara; Tale stupor m'occupa - Cor ingrato, ti rammembri, rec & aria; Di speranza un bel raggio - Venti turbini, prestate, rec & aria); Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Salustia, opera (1732) (Al real piede ognora; Per trucidar la perfidia); Domenico Natale SARRO (SARRI) (1679-1744): Arsace, dramma per musica (1718) (introduzione; Torno ai ceppi; Eccoti al fine - Se penso a Statira, rec & aria); Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Il Cambise, dramma per musica (1719) (Mi cinga la fama; Quando vedrai)

Opera was one of the main forms of entertainment in the 18th century, at least among those who could afford to attend opera performances. Castratos took the first place among the opera stars of those days, and the most famous of them can only be compared to modern-day rock stars as far as their popularity is concerned. As numerous operas were performed across Europe the practice of castration was quite profitable and therefore tempting, in particular for poor families. Most of the castratos spent their life in relatively unfortunate circumstances, for instance as a member of a church choir in a small town, and many may not have had even the talent of making a career as a singer. Today we only know the greatest stars of those days, such as Senesino and Farinelli.

They were very different in character, as the biography of Farinelli in the booklet to the disc, devoted to his art, shows. It is very informative, not only in regard to the composers he worked with and the roles he sang, but also in pointing out his development as an artist. At first he was keen to show his technicall prowess, which by all accounts was astonishing. The Habsburg emperor Charles VI seems to have played a major role in stimulating Farinelli to focus on expression rather than his technical skills. He is quoted with these words: "Those gigantic strides, those never-ending notes and passages only surprise, and it is now time for you to please; you are too lavish of the gifts with which nature has endowed you; if you wish to reach the heart, you must take a more plain and simple road."

There are many testimonies of his style of singing and his interpretation of the various roles he sang, some of which were especially written for him. But obviously we can never be sure exactly how his voice sounded and what his performances were like. Therefore no disc can claim to revive his art; Ann Hallenberg and Christophe Rousset rather concentrate on demonstrating what kind of arias Farinelli sang and what earned him a reputation as probably the best representative of the castrato species.

"Farinelli had a penetrating, full, rich, bright and well-modulated soprano voice, whose range extended at that time from a to d'''. A few years afterwards it had extended lower by a few notes, but without the loss of any high notes, so that in many operas one aria (usually an adagio) was written for him in the normal tessitura of a contralto, while his others were of soprano range [Farinelli's later repertory indicates that his lower range ultimately extended to c]. His intonation was pure, his trill beautiful, his breath control extraordinary and his throat very agile, so that he performed even the widest intervals quickly and with the greatest ease and certainty. Passage-work and all varieties of melismas were of no difficulty whatever for him. In the invention of free ornamentation in adagio he was very fertile". Thus Johann Joachim Quantz, who heard him in the 1720s in Naples, Parma and Milan. The arias recorded here attest to the qualities Quantz describes.

Among the composers in whose operas he sang are some of the most famous of their time, such as Nicola Antonio Porpora (who was also his singing teacher), Leonardo Leo and Geminiano Giacomelli. The latter has largely fallen into oblivion. Farinelli was born as Carlo Broschi in 1705; Riccardo Broschi, whose aria 'Son qual nave ch'agitata' from his opera Artaserse opens the programme, was his older brother. It is an aria di tempesta, which was especially written for Farinelli, and replaced the original aria on the text of Metastasio, the author of the libretto (and a close personal friend of Farinelli).

Particularly beautiful is 'Passagier che incerto' from Giacomelli's opera Adriano in Siria: "The traveller who, uncertain and wandering, cries out, hears the echo from the cave that answers him and makes the forest resound." This aria includes an obbligato part for the violin, which repeats the phrases of the voice, illustrating the echo. 'In braccio a mille furie' from Porpora's opera Semiramide riconosciuta is an impressive example of a rage aria, whose brilliant and fast coloratura gave Farinelli the chance to display his "very agile throat". In 'Cervo in boscho' (Leonardo Leo, Catone in Utica) his abilities to perform "the widest intervals quickly and with the greatest ease and certainty" are displayed. 'Alto Giove' (Polifemo) is one of Porpora's most famous and most expressive arias.

The castrato of the baroque era cannot be revived by any type of voice in our time, not even 'natural' male sopranos, let alone male altos. The same goes for the mezzo-soprano. However, Ann Hallenberg is one of the most renowned interpreters of arias written for castratos, and she has participated in numerous performances and recordings of 18th-century operas. Her technical skills are highly impressive, especially the way she deals with the coloratura and the intervals. Whether one likes her voice is a matter of taste. She is certainly not one of my favourites, and her style of singing has probably not that much to do with the aesthetic ideals of the 18th century. Unfortunately that goes for the performances of most 'specialists' in this kind of repertoire. Her incessant and often pretty wide vibrato is part of the problem. Therefore this disc is interesting rather than musically satisfying. The playing of Les Talens Lyriques sometimes lacks subtlety. The overture to Hasse's Cleofide opens with a movement which is played extremely fast and is a bit rough.

In London Italian opera was extremely popular. No wonder that Handel in 1729 tried to secure Farinelli for his company, but without success. Instead, in 1734 Farinelli signed a contract with the Opera of the Nobility, whose leading composer was his former teacher Porpora. He remained in London until 1737, when he decided to go to Madrid. The Spanish queen had invited him to enter the service of the court, in the hope that his singing would help cure the debilitating depression of Philip V. During his years in London he never sang in any opera by Handel. Therefore the two arias included in Ann Hallenberg's programme, from Alcina and Rinaldo respectively, have no connection to the theme of the disc. They were sung as encores to the concert she performed in Bergen.

Probably the first castrato who made his appearance in London, was Nicolo Grimaldi, known as Nicolino. He was born in Naples, where he also received his musical education as a pupil of Francesco Provenzale. At first singing as a soprano, he later sang alto roles in operas by the most renowned composers of his time, such as Alessandro Scarlatti, Giovanni Bononcini, Leo, Porpora and Handel. He arrived in London in 1708, where he gave his first performance in Nicola Francesco Haym's arrangement of Scarlatti's opera Pirro e Demetrio. According to Winton Dean in New Grove, "[he] enjoyed a great personal triumph and was largely responsible for the increasing popularity of Italian opera in London." It is notable that he was not only admired for his vocal qualities, but also his great skills as an actor.

Carlo Vistoli and Stefano Demicheli, directing his ensemble Talenti Vulcanici, have selected a number of arias from operas in which Nicolino participated. Obviously Handel is represented with arias from Rinaldo; Nicolino sang the title role at the premiere in 1711. Handel even created the title role in Amadigi in Gaula, first performed in 1715, for him. However, considering that Rinaldo is one of Handel's most famous and most frequently performed operas, I would have liked fewer arias from that opera and more from operas by other composers, which can hardly ever be heard in concerts or on disc, let alone in the opera theatre.

Among them are the operas by Domenico Natale Sarro and Alessandro Scarlatti. Sarro (or Sarri) was a Neapolitan composer, who has become best known for a sonata for recorder and strings from the famous Manoscritto di Napoli 1725. However, his almost entire oeuvre consists of vocal works: operas, oratorios, cantatas and occasional compositions. Nicolino sang the title role in Sarro's opera Arsace (1718), a role that, according to Paologiovanni Maione in his liner-notes, "was definitely written with Grimaldo in mind". The castrato often sang in operas by Scarlatti, who was also a personal friend of his. The performance of Scarlatti's Il Cambise during Carnaval in 1719 in Naples attests to their close friendship. The title role was written for and performed by Nicolino, but the singer was also involved in the staging and the choice of cast.

Towards the end of his career Nicolino came into contact with Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. He was to sing in the latter's first opera, Salustia, on a libretto by Apostolo Zeno. For the first performance, which was to take place in January 1732, Nicolino was given the role of Marziano, an elderly general. Its dramatic importance was enhanced, but the vocal part was rewritten, taking into consideration, that the singer was in his twilight years. However, Nicolino did never sing that role: he died on January 1, and for the first performance the role of Marziano was rewritten for a tenor.

Therefore the two arias from Pergolesi's opera in this programme were actually never sung by Nicolino. However, it is certainly interesting that they were included, because they bear witness to the habit of composers to adapt roles in operas to specific singers. In this case the ornamentation has been reduced and the tessitura is not too wide. Carlo Vistoli seems to take that into account in his own ornamentation in the dacapos, but in my view not enough. He could have been more sober in this department. Elsewhere he adds ornaments quite abundantly, even sometimes almost rewriting complete lines. That is not uncommon in modern opera performances, but I think it is a bad habit. Ornaments are additions to what the composer has written down, not a replacement of it.

Carlo Vistoli has a nice voice, but is probably more at home in the intimate arias than in the fiery stuff, as his voice seems not very powerful. Unfortunately he is guilty of the same habit as Ann Hallenberg and so many other opera singers. His incessant and pretty wide vibrato really spoils my enjoyment of his performances. It escapes me, why it has to be used on almost every single note. It is not only historically untenable, it is also musically unsatisfying. Many arias include a lot of coloratura, and the addition of so much vibrato results in an overload of trills, which creates a strong sense of restlessness. After a while it really gets on one's nerves.

The orchestra plays well, but especially in Handel I could imagine a slightly larger ensemble. 'Venti, turbini, prestate' from Rinaldo is a bit too smooth; more pronounced dynamic accents would not have been amiss.

It is nice that the career of a brilliant singer from the early 18th century has been documented on disc, but I would have liked it to me more musically convincing and closer to the aesthetic ideals of the time.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Carlo Vistoli
Les Talens Lyriques
Talenti Vulcanici

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