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The art of the castrato

[I] "Siface - L'amor castrato"
Filippo Mineccia, alto
Dir: Javier Ulises Illán
rec: May 2017, Guadarrama (Madrid), Centro Cultural de La Torre
Glossa - GCD 923514 (© 2018) (68'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Pietro Simone AGOSTINI (1635-1680): Il ratto delle Sabine, opera (1680) (Hor ch'in sopor profondo - Sorgi o bella da le piume, rec & aria; Voglio guerra); Giovanni Battista BASSANI (1647-1716): Il Giona, oratorio (1689) (Core misero); La tromba della divina misericordia, oratorio (1676) (overture); Francesco CAVALLI (1602-1676): Scipione Africano, opera (1675; ed. Alessandro Stradella) (Hora si ch'assai piů fiero); Antonio GIANETTINI (1648-1721): Ingresso alla gioventů di Claudio Nerone, opera (1692) (Languia d'amor - Con un bacio, rec & aria); Carlo Ambrogio LONATI (c1645-c1712): I due germani rivali, opera (1686) (Tremino, crollino); Carlo PALLAVICINO (c1630-1688): Il Bassiano, opera (1683) (overture); Vespasiano, opera (1678) (Č pur caro il poter dire); Bernardo PASQUINI (1637-1710): I fatti di Mosč in Egitto, oratorio (1696) (D'una fede al vivo zelo; Ma nostre voci flebili); La Sete di Cristo, oratorio (1689) (overture); Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): My song shall be alway (Z 31) (My song shall be alway); Sefauchi's Farewell (Z 656)a; Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): La Giuditta (II), oratorio (1697) (Dormi o fulmine); Alessandro STRADELLA (1639-1682): La Susanna, oratorio (1681) (overture; Voi donzelle che studiate; Ma folle č ben chi crede); San Giovanni Battista, oratorio (1675) (overture; Amiche selve - Deste un tempo, rec & aria; Soffin pur rabbiosi; Io per me non cangerei)

Johannes Pramsohler, Ricart Renart, Elsa Ferrer, Silvia Mondino, Roldán Bernabé, Aliza Vicente, Elvira Martínez, violin; Isabel Juárez, Sara Gómez, viola; Ester Domingo, cello; Ismael Campanero, double bass; Manuel Minguillón, archlute, guitar; Daniel Oyarzábal, harpsichord (soloa), organ

[II] "The Paisiello Album - Arias for Castrato"
Filippo Mineccia, alto
Divino Sospiro
Dir: Massimo Mazzeo
rec: Feb 2017, Lisbon, Centro Cultural de Bélem
Pan Classics - PC 10394 (© 2018) (66'54")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Felice ALESSANDRI (1747-1798): Artaserse (1783) (Deh respirar); Domenico CIMAROSA (1750-1803): Oreste (1783) (Oreste, Elettra oh Dio! - Ah che in petto!, rec & aria) Giovanni PAISIELLO (1740-1816): Alessandro (1774) (Destrier che all'armi usato); Antigono (1785) (Meglio Rifletti; Deh non opporti - Giŕ che morir degg'io, rec & aria); Cantata per San Gennaro (1785) (Per me de' mortali); Catone in Utica (1789) (So che pietŕ non hai); Demetrio (1771) (overture; Trova un sol che sia costante; Di quel'ingiusto sdegno); Il Gran Cid (1775) (Tu del popolo); Il ritorno di Perseo, cantata (1785) (La tua fe'); La Pace (c1799) (Fiumicello che riceve); Giacomo TRITTO (1733-1824): Artenice (1784) (Guarda s'imbruna)

Pedro Castro, Luis Marques, oboe; Giulia Breschi, Vera Dias, bassoon; Ermes Pecchenini, Laurent Rossi, horn; Fabio Ravasi, Iskrena Yordanova, Boris Begelman, Heriberto Delgado, Francesco Colletti, Malina Mantcheva, Giancarlo Ceccacci, Valeria Caponnetto, violin; Miriam Macaia, Lucio Studer, viola; Marcello Scandelli, Ana Raquel Pinheiro, cello; Marta Vicente, double bass; Riccardo Doni, harpsichord

One of the most notable features of the baroque era is the fascination with the voice of the castrato. Castratos were the big stars of the opera scene for about a century. A number of them are still known, and in some cases we are pretty well informed about their careers and their repertoire. In recent years it has become increasingly popular to celebrate careers of famous singers from the 18th century with discs, devoted to their repertoire. The two discs under review here shed light on the activities of several castratos on both ends of the palmy days of the castrato: Siface lived in the second half of the 17th century, when the days of virtuosic opera arias had not come yet, whereas Paisiello wrote his operas, many of which included parts for castratos, in a time when the phenomenon of the castrato became increasingly controversial. The fact that the singer in both recordings is Filippo Mineccia is an additional reason to examine them in one review.

The first castratos made their appearance between 1550 and 1560 in Rome and Ferrara. They first sang sacred music, for instance in the choir of the Sistine Chapel and in the Bavarian chapel under Orlandus Lassus. The birth of the genre of opera did not immediately pave the way for castratos to make a career for themselves. It was only in the last quarter of the 17th century that they took the leading roles in operas. One of them was Giovanni Francesco Grossi (1653-1697), who performed the role of Siface in Francesco Cavalli's opera Scipione africano, when it was performed in 1671 in Rome in a revision of Alessandro Stradella. It earned him the nickname of Siface. This performance had a decisive influence on his career. In the next years he sang in operas, oratorios and serenatas by the leading composers of his time, such as Stradella, Pallavicino, Bassani, Legrenzi and Pasquini. His success also turned him into a rather arrogant character, something which several of his colleagues from the next century were also infamous for. He once visited England where he sang in the Catholic chapel of James II's wife, Maria Beatrice, the sister of Duke Francesco II d'Este of Modena. From 1679 until his death Siface was formally in the service of the Duke. In England he also met Henry Purcell. In the booklet it is suggested that Purcell may have written the anthem My song shall be alway for Siface; it is included in the programme. However, the anthem exists in two versions, for soprano and for bass respectively; the latter seems to be the original version by Purcell. Moreover, what we have here is only an extract from a piece which includes two episodes for choir. There can be no doubt, however, that Purcell wrote the keyboard piece Sefauchi's Farewell to mark the singer's departure. Siface was murdered in 1697 by members of the Marsili family, when he became acquainted with Elena Marsili, the widow of Count Forni at the court of Francesco II d'Este.

The programme Filippo Mineccia recorded, is a survey of Siface's activities. It is a bit disappointing that a considerable part is devoted to extracts from works that are pretty well known and available in several recordings. That goes in particular for the oratorio San Giovanni Battista, one of the best-known works by Stradella. In this work Siface took the title role. Hardly less well-known is Stradella's oratorio La Susanna, in which Siface sang the role of the Testo. In 2016 Giovanni Battista Bassani's oratorio Il Giona was released on Tactus; in this work Siface took care of the title role. The programme ends with an aria from Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorio La Giuditta, the second one on this subject, for three voices, among them that of the nurse (Nutrice). This disc is especially interesting for the arias from dramatic works by lesser-known masters, such as Carlo Pallavicino (Vespasiano), Pietro Simone Agostini (Il ratto delle Sabine), Carlo Ambrogio Lonati, who is best known for his violin sonatas (I due germani rivali) and Antonio Giannettini (Ingresso alla gioventů di Claudio Nerone). They are just some specimens of a large repertoire, which is never performed. The same goes for the genre of the oratorio. In recent times several of them have been recorded, but Pasquini's Il fatti di Mosč in Egitto is one of many waiting to be rediscovered.

The second disc is devoted to Giovanni Paisiello, according to the frontispiece. In fact, the programme also includes arias by some of his contemporaries. Paisiello was one of the most admired opera composers in the second half of the 18th century. His reputation was mainly based on his comic operas. Although not born in Naples, he considered himself a Neapolitan, having studied at the Conservatorio di S Onofri. Paisiello's career can be divided into three stages. In the first he concentrated on composing comic operas, mainly for Naples. The next stage started when he was invited by the Russian tsarina Catherina II to become her maestro di cappella. In this capacity he composed some operas, but as Catherina wasn't really interested in music and only kept her chapel as a matter of prestige, he found time to compose other kinds of music as well, in particular keyboard works for his pupils at court. He stayed in St Petersburg until 1783, when he returned to Naples. In the last stage of his career his attention shifted from the comic opera to the opera seria and to religious music. During this stage he also had to deal with the effects of the French revolution. Twice the king of Naples had to flee because of a French invasion. On both occasions Paisiello stayed in the city and worked for the new regime. After a while the kingdom was restored but Paisiello got away with his affiliation with the new regime as he took advantage of a general amnesty by King Ferdinando. Paisiello was the favourite composer of Napoleon who invited him to Paris; there he arrived in 1802. He contributed to the music which was performed at Napoleon's coronation in 1804. That same year he returned to Naples but sent Napoleon every year new sacred works.

The arias included in this recording are from operas which span Paisiello's career from the early days to the French Revolution. The earliest are from Demetrio, which premiered in Modena in 1771, the latest is from Catone in Utica (Naples, 1789). In Paisiello's time, the phenomenon of the castrato became the subject of criticism. Paologiovanni Maione, in his liner-notes, suggests this was the effect of the Enlightenment. However, views on when exactly the Enlightenment was born, differ, and therefore the connection between this movement and the gradual disappearance of the castrato is not that evident. It seems possible that the increasing longing for 'naturalness', expressed musically by the likes of Gluck in opera and Tartini in instrumental music, had more to do with it. The decline of the castrato went hand in hand with the waning interest in the genre of opera seria. It is probably no coincidence that the latest opera represented here, was first performed in 1789. Paisiello continued to compose operas, but it is unlikely that castratos played any role in them.

The arias included here were sung by various singers who are mostly not that well known to us today, if one compares them with some stars of the baroque era, such as Farinelli, Senesino and Caffarelli. However, in their time the likes of Giovanni Rubinelli, Giuseppe Aprile and Angiolo Monanni were celebrities. It is nice that in the booklet all the relevant data about the first performance of an aria are mentioned: the place and year, but also which role an aria belongs to and who was the first interpreter. Listening to these arias it is easy to understand why Paisiello was such a successful opera composer. Musically they are always interesting, and often his arias have something special, connected to its content. An example is 'Destrier, che all'armi usato' from Alessandro (Modena, 1774), which is part of the role of Poro, sung by Rubinelli. Notable is here the obbligato part for bassoon. It plays a prominent role, sometimes imitating the voice, and sometimes playing in parallel motion. Its use suits an aria about a warhorse, jumping its fence. "It believes that any sound it hears is the voice of its ferocious rider who sends it to war". La Pace is an occasional work from 1799, and the aria 'Fiumicello che riceve' opens with the phrase "A river that receives lot of water from melted snow, tumbles broad and fast", which is graphically depicted by the strings.

Also included are arias by some of Paisiello's contemporaries. The best-known of them is Domenico Cimarosa, although almost exclusively for his comic opera Il matrimonio segreto. 'Ah che in petto', here with its preceding recitative, is from Oreste, a dramma per musica, indicating an opera seria, first performed in Naples in 1783. In the booklet Maione characterises it rightly as a Sturm und Drang piece: "Alas! My trembling heart reminds me (...) of that evil ungrateful subject and of the dangers of a faithful soul". Felice Alessandri and Giacomo Tritto are almost entirely unknown quantities. The former's career has not been thoroughly investigated, according to New Grove. It seems that since the encyclopedia was published, not much has changed. The same probably goes for Tritto, but at least one opera from his pen has been recorded recently, according to ArkivMusic.

And that brings me to my assessment of these two discs. At several occasions I have expressed my doubts about recital discs with opera arias. It is a little unnatural to isolate arias from their dramatic context, especially if the listener does not know the story. However, these two discs show that such recordings can make sense. As far as the Siface disc is concerned, it is nice that a singer, who is probably less known than some of his 18th-century colleagues, is put into the spotlight. Moreover, by highlighting his career, we become acquainted with lesser-known repertoire. The downside of that disc is that the pieces are mostly rather short, due to the fact that arias at that time mostly did not have a dacapo. The second disc is interesting for a different reason: Paisiello may be a household name, but his music is not frequently performed. Some of his theatrical works are available on disc, but overall his oeuvre - and especially his music for the theatre - is rather badly represented on disc. There is still much work to do. This disc gives us some idea of the features and the quality of his oeuvre. There is every reason for opera houses to programme some of his operas, instead of the endless repetition of the same stuff. Mineccia's recording is a pretty strong case for Paisiello.

That leads to his performances. Over the years I have heard several of his recordings and I have heard him in live performances on the radio. I like his voice and the way he approaches the repertoire. His performances are stylish and he sings with much commitment. It is praiseworthy anyway that a singer of his calibre does not confine himself to the conventional stuff, such as arias from Handel or Vivaldi operas. The Siface recording seems to be his personal project, as he himself put together the programme. It is true that he uses a bit more vibrato than he should, but it is by far not as bad as that of some of his collegues. It hardly bothered me while listening to these discs, which says a lot about the nature of his performances. He does not exaggerate in the ornamentation department and his cadenzas are relatively modest. His performances are quite differentiated. He can be powerful, such as in Lonati's rage aria 'Tremino, crollino', but also wonderfully subtle, for instance in Agostini's 'Sorgi o bella'. Unfortunately his English pronunciation in Purcell's My song shall be alway leaves something to be desired.

If one personifies the castratos of the baroque era, one should try to come as close to the performance practice of those days. In that respect I see two issues. It was generally avoided to cross the range of a part in ornamentation and cadenzas, and Mineccia seems not always to do that. The other thing is that castratos seem to have sung top notes softly rather than at full power, as is customary these days, unfortunately also in Mineccia's performances. I would love to hear a singer focusing on that aspect of their singing.

All said and done, there is every reason to strongly recommend these two discs. They have given me much enjoyment and are important additions to the discography. I should not forget to add that in both cases the respective orchestras deliver outstanding performances, substantially contributing to the persuasiveness of these two vocal recitals.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Filippo Mineccia
Divino Sospiro

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