Grace Bumbry, asked some time ago about her status as a ‘diva’, is reported to have said, in her inimitable way, “In Europe, I am the Number 1 female singer, but in America I can’t even see the front of the line.” In the American world of the counter-tenor, there is only, truly, one spot in that line, and it has been taken, for several decades, and for better and largely, in this critic’s view, for worse, by David Daniels. In fact there are a large number of home-grown American counter-tenors of high quality, from Asawa to Zazzo, but while many of them sing in opera (and from time to time at the Metropolitan Opera), only Daniels has the imprimatur of audience recognition. While this country still welcomes those yearning to breathe free (particularly if they have advanced degrees in computer programming, or a nursing qualification), we don’t really want your counter-tenors, thank you, and if they do come, please be assured that they will only receive short-term visas.
Philippe Jaroussky is one of these many - although certainly not tired and doubtless not poor - who have far broader name-recognition (and substantial recording contracts ) in Europe, and his visits here have been few and far between. He came to Carnegie Hall on October 29 of this year, accompanied by Christina Pluhar and her group, L’Arpeggiata, presumably in support of, and perhaps with the support of, Virgin Classics/EMI, in a program which reflected closely, if somewhat incoherently, the recent discs of these performers. The evening was presented in Zankel Hall, the relatively new Carnegie Hall space, below ground level, which seats about 600, and which has good if somewhat bright acoustics. Mr. Daniels, needless to say, gives his recitals in the main hall, which accommodates more than four times that number.
Baroque concerts do well here; one doesn’t really know if this reflects the music itself, or its relative soothing brevity; the event was announced as sold out, and seemed to be almost that. The imaginative program of by-the-wayside Baroque works, sacred and profane, included such rarely heard composers as Barbara Strozzi, Maurizio Cazzati, Santiago de Murcia, and Antonio Bertali, but centered around the work of Claudio Monteverdi. But however much the evening represented the imaginative impulse of the part of the performers, it required, perhaps, too much imaginative effort on the part of the audience to be a fully satisfying experience. The order of works was apparently changed at some time after the printing of the program, but without a word to the audience, and this led to some predictable and unnecessary confusion as to whether one was listening to a work by Giovanni Felice Sances or Domenico Maria Melli. Although program notes are almost never an important part of the concert experience, still one had considerable regret that there was so little to orient the listener to the music. True, each aria or song was given some kind of chatty background of perhaps 50 words (in America, the approach to ‘classical’ music nowadays, in an attempt to woo audiences, has begun to look indistinguishable from news about soap opera stars), but one would have preferred a bit less of the ‘brief biography’ of each piece, and perhaps more of a road map connecting Monteverdi with these other artists, in reciprocal or derivative influence, to help orient the concert material within a period profoundly reflective of ferment and rapid development. If there were rhyme or reason for the choice of the specific excerpts - and surely program building means something – it was not apparent, and so the works, although differing in some substantial (and insubstantial) ways one from another, ended up evoking in the listener nothing so much as former Vice President Spiro Agnew’s mediation on Redwoods: “If you‘ve seen one, you‘ve seen them all.”.
Without question the evening was engaging on its own terms. But one of the elements of classical music which distinguishes it from other forms of musical entertainment such as jazz is the reliance of diverse artists on a written text on which they fundamentally agree, no matter how that text is varied in performance. Although countless works are of anonymous or questionable authorship, still there is an assumption of authorship beyond that of the mere performer. The evening was enjoyable but dissatisfying precisely because it ignored this assumption without really ever confronting it, and challenged the line that might be drawn between the two approaches without ever really proposing a solution. The responsibility for this may lie chiefly with Madame Pluhar, who is well known for a philosophy which encourages the presentation of performances without many of the niceties of basic scholarship available to the audience. One had no idea, during the evening, which works were essentially faithful in orchestration, editing and harmonization to the original, which represented conflations of works, nor who might be responsible for the various performing editions used; in this way, the approach of L’Arpeggiata harkened back, paradoxically, to the pre-Baroque revival, where the musical lens through which such works were heard was viewed as irrelevant to the listening experience. Throughout the evening, there were a number of relatively brief opportunities for the band to perform solo, and many of these episodes were denominated as “Improvisations” but were, if anything, fantasias, about which the audience was given no information. There could have been nothing more startling than hearing the initial ‘improvisation’, “La dia spagnola”, where the first notes were nothing other than the most well-known fanfare from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo; were these even fantasias, or perhaps simply pasticci? None of this is to suggest that Madame Pluhar lacks integrity in her work, or that she would have been entirely responsible for the choices of the evening. Mr. Jaroussky has ventured more thoroughly into the contemporary idiom than many of his confrères in recent years, and doubtless both of them feel they have a message to give about this kind of presentation. Without placing that message in some shared context with the audience (again, an important context for the classical music ‘canon’ generally), the works themselves, and any specific importance they had, became entirely subordinated to the personalities of the performers, and thus to some extent were trivialized.
Jaroussky was certainly very much la vedette, and performed in 9 of the numbers, all the most substantial. If the average American opera-goer knows anything about Jaroussky, it is that he is a young man of a somewhat feline attractiveness, very “French” and certainly quite elegant on stage; he sang the entire concert with his jacket properly buttoned, which, with his rather gawky figure, gave him the charming appearance of a high school student being prepared for his first formal picture. But ultimately, for singers, one sooner or later opens the box and looks inside at the contents, and the general liability of counter-tenors – a lack of color in the voice – is not a challenge Jaroussky seems to have overcome. Though he is easily able to reach the soprano F at the top of the staff, and even somewhat higher, for much of the evening the tone was relatively ‘straight’ and white in color, and he lacked the body of tone which one associates with such singers in their prime as Michael Chance and Lawrence Zazzo. Jaroussky certainly handled the rapid figurations of Melli’s “Dispiegate” comfortably, as well as the long-breathed melismas of the Strozzi “L’eraclito amoroso,” but his stance towards the music seemed involved only in an intellectualized way - is this the French influence? - and one never really felt a direct personal engagement with the works, even with those of intense religious experience.
How much real passion Jaroussky has for this repertoire is perhaps a valid question. There was a distinctly mannered quality in the constant variations in dynamics that reminded one of nothing more than Edita Gruberova, and while no one would think to suggest that he is not a fine musician, his work was characterized by an almost idiosyncratic lack of a basic overall ‘pulse’; one could not be sure if there was a lack of firmness to the line, or a self-referential desire to inflect the line through a more ad libitum approach to tempo. Jaroussky’s performance of Sancre’s Stabat Mater, one of the great religious exaltations of the era, and a piece marked by a continuing gentle rhythmic ‘swing’ which is critical to an ever-increasing sense of intensity as the images and sense of devotion accumulates, was left limp by his inability to convey the overall structural design. And certainly it was not that the seven person period orchestra did nothing to help. One would have liked to have heard more of the instrumental soloists. Veronika Skuplik performing on the baroque violin, Miss Pluhar, who plays the theorbo and baroque guitar), and in particular Doron Sherwin, a star cornettist and Margit Übellacker as a real wizard of the psatlery, were pleasures in their own right. It was difficult not to be put longingly in mind of the now legendary and pioneering Esther Lamandier, whose work twenty years ago unearthing, reconstructing and performing many of the great solo works of the High Middle Ages, often either a cappella or with minimal accompaniment, was both so much more emotionally charged, and at the same time evoked feelings far earthier than anything Jaroussky was capable of,
For a first encore, Jaroussky and the ensemble performed a take-off (doubtless, the performers would say an ‘improvisation’) on Monteverdi’s “Ohimè ch'io cado” which they had offered earlier in the evening come scritto. Jaroussky, jacket now unbuttoned and shirt teasingly open, began dancing seductively (at least as seductively as a French singer of the 50s might have permitted himself) and tried to vamp the aria, doing a kind of ‘scat’ singing, interpolating phrases from other music (including, notably, the Gershwins’ “Summertime,“), and using his voice as a sword to scare Sherwin (who may be more of the musical center of the group than even Ms. Pluhar). After the high seriousness of the main program, the impression given was that the house was to have a let-down-your-hair moment. But, however gentle and well-intended the fun, it was all so obviously rehearsed, including the reactions from the orchestra members - and some “spontaneous” singing from them - that the display only tended to emphasize the canned and artificial quality of the entire evening. With performers of this extraordinarily high quality, and music of an era still insufficiently known or even explored, one has to regret an approach that forsakes making popular for an attempt at popularization.