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CD reviews

The art of Antonio Maria Bernacchi and Domenico Annibali

[I] "Pace e guerra - Arias for Bernacchi"
Terry Wey, alto
Vivica Genaux, mezzo-sopranoa; Valer Sabadus, altob
Bach Consort Wien
Dir: Rubn Dubrovsky
rec: Jan 2 - 5, 2016, Vienna, Wiener Kammeroper
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985410502 ( 2017) (74'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco GASPARINI (1661-1727): Il Bajazet, opera (1719) (A dispetto); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1750): Lotario (HWV 26), dramma per musica (1729) (Non disperi peregrino); Partenope (HWV 27), opera (1730) (Rosmira, ove ti guida - Ch'io parta, rec & ariaa; Furibondo spira il vento); Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Demetrio, opera (1732) (Dal mio ben che tanto amai, duetto)a; Carlo Francesco POLLAROLO (1658-1723): Ariodante, opera (1716) (Gi mi par); Domenico Natale SARRO (1679-1744): L'Arsace, opera (c1718) (Quell'usignuolo); Pietro TORRI (c1650-1737): Amadis di Grecia, dramma per musica (1724) (La cara tua favella); Lucio Vero, opera (1720) (Pace e guerra); Venceslao, opera (1725) (Parto, non ho costanza); Leonardo VINCI (c1690-1730): Il Medo, opera (1728) (Pria che sposarlo - Taci o di morte, rec & aria; Sento scherzar, terzettoab)

Emma Black, Katharina Humpel, oboe; Ivan Calestani, bassoon; Balduin Wetter, Christoph Peham, horn; Agnes Stradner, Tmea Hm, Silvia Iberer, Sofija Krsteska, Wolfhart Schuster, violin; Christiane Bruckmann-Hiller, Florian Hasenburger, violin, viola; Lucas Schurig, viola; Peter Trefflinger, cello; Roberto Sensi, violone; David Burgmller, lute; Dimitri Bondarenko, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Arias for Domenico Annibali - The Dresden Star Castrato"
Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, alto
Carla Nahadi Babelegoto, sopranoa
Il Basilico
Dir: Eva Saladin
rec: August 6 - 10, 2015, Basel, Adullamkapelle
Pan Classics - PC 10341 ( 2016) (65'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Francesco FEO (1691-1761): Andromaca, opera (1730) (Quel nocchier che vana ogn'opra); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Berenice, regina d'Egitto (HWV 38), opera (1737) (Se il mio amor fu il tuo delitto)a; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Cleofide, opera (1731) (Cervo al bosco); Irene (1738) (Perfidi, sul mio core); Gaetano LATILLA (1711-1788): Romolo, dramma per musica (1739) (Cos geloso un angue); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Filandro, dramma comico-pastorale (1747) (Terra questa - D'esser gi parmi, acc & aria); Germanico in Germania, dramma per musica (1732) (Qual turbine che scende); Giovanni Alberto RISTORI (1692-1753): Componimento per musica (1736) (S, rifiorite - A vostro dispetto, acc & aria); Le fate, dramma per musica (1736) (Bellezza adorate); Jan Dismas ZELENKA (1679-1745): Il serpente di bronzo, cantata sacra (ZWV 61) (Gi ripiglia vermiglia la rosa)

Thomas Meraner, Georg Fritz, oboe; Letizia Viola, bassoon; Olivier Picon, horn; Eva Saladin, Christoph Rudolph, Natalie Carducci, Sonoko Asabuki, Johannes Frisch, Coline Ormond, violin; Giovanni Simeoni, Matthias Klenota, viola; Daniel Rosin, Mara Miribung, cello; Fred Uhlig, violone; Ori Harmelin, theorbo; Seung-Min Lee, Johannes Keller, harpsichord

Opera was one of the main forms of secular vocal music during the 17th and 18th centuries. Numerous operas were written and performed across Europe, and as a result there were plenty of opportunities for opera singers to find employment. Most of them have remained unknown, but some became so famous that they are not only known, but that in many cases we also know in which operas they participated and which roles they sang. This offers the opportunity to portray them with the repertoire which gave them the opportunity to shine and which mostly explored their specific qualities, in particular when roles were written for them. Among the opera stars of the time castratos took first place. Two names have become particularly well-known: Senesino and Farinelli. The two discs under review here shed light on two other castratos: Antonio Maria Bernacchi and Domenico Annibali. Both have become best known for their participation in performances of operas by Handel.

Bernacchi was born in Bologna, and after studying singing and counterpoint he made his debut in 1703 in Genoa. In 1709 he performed in Vienna and from that same year he frequently participated in opera performances in Venice. In between he performed in other Italian cities, such as Bologna, Florence, Parma, Milan, Naples and Rome. He participated in operas by the major opera composers of his time, among them Alessandro Scarlatti, Leonardo Vinci and Leonardo Leo. In 1716 he made his debut in London in a performance of an opera by Alessandro Scarlatti, at which occasion Handel composed three additional arias for him. The next year he sang in performances of Handel's operas Rinaldo and Amadigi. He later took part in the first performances of Lotario (1729) and Partenope (1730) as well as revivals of other operas, among them Giulio Cesare and Tolomeo. In 1738 he retired and founded a singing school; among his pupils was the tenor Anton Raaff.

The appreciation of Bernacchi's art was different. He was technically brilliant and renowned for his virtuosity, especially in ornaments and cadenzas, according to Winton Dean in New Grove. However, he was criticized for a lack of style and expression. In the liner-notes to Terry Wey's disc Silke Leopold states: "The criticism that Bernacchi did not have a particularly beautiful voice and that he made up for this shortcoming by means of an over-developed technique and breath-taking virtuosity continued to dog the singer's reputation and is still found as late as 1789 in Burney's A General History of Music. The music included in the present release speaks a different language". There may be some truth in that: would a composer require a singer to perform an expressive aria, if he did not have the qualities to realise that expression? On the other hand, we will never know what exactly his style of singing was. His repertoire may indeed give some clue, but can never be decisive.

It is an interesting issue how exactly a modern interpreter should 'recreate', as it were, the art of a singer nobody has ever heard. One would like to read about his thoughts on this issue. The technical skills of Bernacchi come to the fore in some virtuosic arias, and it seems that Terry Wey attempted to give some idea of Bernacchi's habits in regard to ornamentation and the addition of cadenzas. These are exactly those aspects of his performances which I did not like very much. I think that his ornamentation in the dacapos is often excessive, rather unnatural and not that well-judged. In his cadenzas he often exceeds the range of the part, which - as far as I know - was not appreciated at the time. To give one example: in 'Furibondo spira il vento' from Handel's Partenope he goes to the top of his tessitura, immediately followed by a note in his chest register.

Overall I am rather sceptical about Wey's performances. He is well-known as a member of the renaissance vocal ensemble Cinquecento, and regularly participates in performances and recordings of sacred repertoire. He generally avoids excessive and incessant vibrato, which cannot be appreciated enough, but as an opera singer he does not really convince me. He does best in the more lyrical and expressive arias, such as 'Parto, non ho costanza' from Pietro Torri's Venceslao and 'Non disperi peregrino' from Handel's Lotario. But his voice is not powerful enough for rage arias, such as the one from Handel's Partenope to which I already referred, and 'A dispetto' from Il Bajazet by Francesco Gasparini.

One of the positive aspects of this disc is that no fewer than seven items are recorded here for the first time. Among them is the terzetto 'Sento scherzar' from Leonardo Vinci's Il Medo. Valer Sabadus is a good match here, but Vivica Genaux much less so. She also sings in the duet from Hasse's Demetrio and in the recitative which leads to the aria 'Ch'io parta from Handel's Partenope. I don't like her contributions very much, also due to her incessant vibrato, but also because I find her voice not very pleasant to listen to.

In comparison to Bernacchi, his colleague Domenico Annibali is less well known, mainly because he spent the major part of his career in Dresden. He was in the service of the court chapel and sang in many operas by Johann Adolf Hasse. As the opera repertoire performed in Dresden and indeed the operatic output of Hasse still waits to be explored, he has remained a little under the radar. That makes the Pan Classics disc, devoted to this alto castrato, all the more important.

Nothing is known about the early stages of Annibali's life; even the year of his birth is not known, but it is assumed that it was around 1705. From early on he was connected to the court in Dresden. In 1723 Count Emilio de Villio, by order of the Electoral Prince Augustus III, travelled to Italy to search for talented young singers. Among the four castrati he selected, was Domenico Annibali. He was then educated, at the expense of the court, by the castrato and conductor Don Pietro Paolo Benedetti in Recanati, near his birthplace of Macerata. He continued his studies with Francesco Antonio Pistocchi in Venice. In 1727 Annibali made his operatic debut in an opera by Albinoni in Venice. In the next few years he sang in other operas in Venice and then in Rome.

In 1731 Annibali went to Dresden, and here he participated in a performance of Hasse's opera Cleofide; in the audience were also Johann Sebastian Bach and his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. In 1733 Hasse took up his duties as Kapellmeister to the Dresden court, and from then on Annibale participated in many operas by Hasse, eighteen in total, and to those we have to add many oratorios. However, he not only sang in works from Hasse's pen, but also in compositions by other composers who were employed in Dresden, such as Zelenka and Ristori. In the 1736/37 season Annibali was allowed - at the request of Handel - to perform in operas in London, a clear token of his international reputation. He sang in Arminio, Giustino and Berenice and in revivals of earlier operas as well as in some other vocal works, such as Alexander's Feast.

There are mixed reports about Annibali's qualities. According to Charles Burney "his abilities during his stay in England seem to have made no deep impression", but others ranked him among the best singers of his time. Mary Pendarves, a supporter of Handel, described him as "the best part of Senesino's voice and Carestini's, with a prodigious fine taste and good action". From the repertoire that he is known to have sung, one can conclude that his voice had a wide range. It supports the contemporary descriptions of his skills in coloratura, which was called "brilliant" and "extremely flexible". The arias selected for this recording deliver a good survey of his capabilities.

There are some fine lyric pieces, such as 'Bellezze adorate' from Ristori's opera Le pate, 'Vado a morir' from Handel's Arminio and 'Gi ripiglia vermiglia la rosa' from the oratorio Il Serpente di bronzo by Zelenka. Very different is 'Qual turbine che scende' from Germanico in Germania by Porpora: "Like a whirlwind desdending on the horrid precipice, my avenging fury will fall on his head". The "whirlwind" is effectively depicted by the coloratura, brilliantly sung by Flavio Ferri-Benedetti. He also does very well in the fiery aria 'Perfidi, sul mio core' from Hasse's Irene and in 'A vostro dispetto' from Ristori's serenata Componimento per musica.

To a certain extent a comparison between Terry Wey and Flavio Ferri-Benedetti is not fair, as the repertoire is different and they portray two different singers. Even so, the difference is quite clear: Ferri-Benedetti is a natural opera singer, and Wey is not. The former has a wider range of colours and more dynamic possibilities. He is in particular better suited to stuff like rage arias where the singer needs to have a really theatrical personality. Ferri-Benedetti has that, and that comes off very well here. He is supported by an orchestra which makes substantially more of the orchestral parts than the Bach Consort Wien.

Isn't there anything to complain? Yes, there are some issues. First of all, there is a slight wave in his voice, a slow vibrato which is not disturbing, but something I did not notice in previous recordings. Overall he behaves well in regard to ornamentation and cadenzas, although in Ristori's 'A vostro dispetto' he exceeds by far the range of his part. In Hasse's 'Perfidi, sul mio core' the top notes don't sound entirely comfortable. At the end of the B section of 'Quel nocchier che vana ogn'opra' from Andromaca by Francesco Feo Ferri-Benedetti slides into his chest register. That may be an eloquent depiction of the text - "[my heart cannot long] for a dark, despicable life" - but considering that castratos did not have such a register, it seems questionable from a historical point of view. The real disappointment is the duet 'Se il mio amor fu il tuo delitto' from Handel's Berenice. The voices of Carla Nahadi Babelegoto and Ferri-Benedetti don't blend at all, especially due to the soprano's pretty wide vibrato.

That said, this disc is a worthy tribute to an undoubtedly fine singer, who deserves his place among the great castratos of his time.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

Relevant links:

Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Terry Wey
Bach Consort Wien

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