When Vinci’s Artaserse premiered in Rome in 1730, all five principal roles (including two female characters) were sung by men, led by the fabled castrato Carestini. In the 18th century, castrati were the equivalent of Rossini bel canto tenors but to write significant roles for as many as three primi uomini in a single opera is at best reckless (witness Rossini’s Otello, rarely performed, certainly not by three singers of comparable quality.) Dear reader, it’s time to transport yourself to the Theâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris some 280 years later. Gone are the wigs, the sumptuous silk, brocades and the hearty picnics the original 18th century audiences would have enjoyed during the opera, but still the sense of anticipation was palpable, for this was to be the first documented performance of Artaserse in modern times in which five out of six principal roles, all originally written for castrati, were to be sung by men. This was the ‘must see’ Baroque event of the year and somehow it is fitting that 2012, the centenary of countertenor Alfred Deller’s birth, should be the year in which Max Emanuel Cencic brought together one of the finest collection of counter-tenors in the world today.
Despite the excesses of today’s Regietheater, this production would probably not have been feasible before 2012. Not only did we not have enough counter-tenors fit to project blockbuster arias in a sizeable opera house until the current generation (the first male alto to assume a major role at The Met was Jeffrey Gall as recently as 1988,) but the licentiousness of the Baroque era, reflected in this opera’s glorification of beautiful young men, is very much the stuff of the continental carnivale tradition, where you are allowed to break the rules and behave outrageously in the knowledge that the social mores will be restored as soon as Lent begins. To quote Philippe Jaroussky in a 2010 New York Times interview: “Finally, after three centuries, we are getting closer to the more open sexual codes of the Baroque, where no one found it in the least surprising that Farinelli was singing the part of Cleopatra and that a woman was singing Julius Caesar!”’
The great librettist Metastasio called Artaserse “the most fortunate of my children,” spawning as it did almost 50 productions in its first decade of life. Vinci’s version was written for the Teatro della Dame in Rome. You will know, dear reader,that the opera of the day was all about the da capo aria, with each singer competing with the next in his elaborate ornamentation in the repeat. Throw in complex, even impenetrable plots (I was given a carefully printed flow diagram of who loved whom with great solemnity by the French gentleman in the seat next to me) and the Rococo precursor of bel canto which alternates ‘line and length singing’ with extraordinary melismatic passages, calculated to make your audience swoon, and we are teleported into Opera seria-land where grown men (admittedly with unfeasibly high voices) sing plaintively about the conflict between Love and Duty.
What has been frankly impossible to recreate until now is the atmosphere of the heady world of competing castrati. They were the international superstars of their day, many of whom were brought to these shores by that well-known British treasure, Georg Friedrich Händel. By 1730, the year of Artaserse’s premiere, castrati had played principal roles in Italian opera for more than a hundred years and it was a time when the female roles in Italian opera were written for castrati, very much in the travesti tradition, as women in a Catholic country were denied the chance to appear on the operatic stage.
Since the revival of Handel operas began in recent decades, we have seen a succession of mezzos take on roles such as Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare to great success, but it is probably only in the last ten years or so that a new breed of counter-tenor has sprung up, able to tackle the male roles undertaken by alto castrati such as Senesino and Pacchierotti in their day. However, what we have lacked is a generation of adult males who can effectively cover the soprano tessitura in anything other than a poor emulation of boy treble and, even rarer, those men who are the equivalent of a dramatic soprano, with a consistent, focused sound throughout both the soprano and mezzo range coupled with the ability to project vocally and captivate dramatically in an opera house (rather than a chancel.) At last this production of Artaserse, (which is now also available for your delectation on the Virgin Classics label), offers you a rich panoply of five very different counter-tenor voices, any of which would surely have captivated a Georgian audience of both sexes and inspired the duels, sexual intrigues and scandals which dogged the lives of castrati such as Rauzzini.
The plot of Artaserse is a little too complex to summarise. It is based on a fiendish plan by the villain, Artabano to assassinate the King of Persia and replace his successors with his own son (Arbace.) Most of the narrative is described in the opening recitatives, allowing the arias and duets which form the backbone of this opera to be emotionally-charged explorations of the conflicts between filial duty and loyalty to the king, honesty and expediency, erotic love as opposed to the friendship between two men. I’m pleased to report the two young couples are reconciled at the end and live happily ever after while the villain’s life is spared and he is sent into exile.
It was a packed house and an enthusiastic audience at the Theâtre des Champs Elysées. Anyone familiar with Paris audiences will recognise the slow handclap – or, more accurately, synchronised clapping - which the performers received at the end is the French equivalent of a British standing ovation. But the audience applauded after every major aria, and, boy, is this opera packed with major arias! This may have been a concert performance, but the two ‘girls’ wore androgynous long robes and everyone except the tenor (Daniel Behle,) who sang from a score, sang in character, acting with the voice rather than with movement or gesture. An excellent staged production with this same cast was also shown on Mezzo TV and clips can be found on YouTube, which I would strongly recommend.
For me the first surprise was Philippe Jaroussky. This was my first chance to hear him live and I had some doubts that his soprano tessitura voice (which sounds light on DVD) might not project above an orchestra in a sizeable theatre (my usual beef about some of today’s counter-tenor stars.) How wrong I was. Jaroussky’s singing from where I was sitting was the best projected of the cast, but also the most poised. His clear, pure voice was consistently focused and well-supported and every line gloriously phrased. He was utterly convincing as a young aristocrat whose father has been murdered and then, not before he has mistakenly executed his own brother for the murder, faces the allegation that his best friend committed the crime. His best aria was ‘Non conosco in tal momento.’
Next in the mix is Max Emanuel Cencic, apparently the instigator of the project, who assumes the first of the travesti roles – Mandane, sister of Artaserse (Jaroussky) and lover of her brother’s best friend. Cencic’s international reputation, just like that of the great castrati before him, precedes him, and rightly so. Why have we not heard him on the operatic stage in London? His is the most liquid, creamy, plaintive alto voice I’ve ever heard and his singing of ‘Dimmi che un empio sei’ in full drag should not only whet the appetites of casting directors throughout the world, but it illustrates that this Croatian counter-tenor is at his best in character, playing to the crowd. If, like me, you can’t get enough of the sound of this extraordinary singer’s voice, he is very well represented on disc with Handel’s Alessandro and Vivaldi’s Farnace which have won record industry awards.
The second of the travesti roles is that of Semira, sister of the accused Arbace and lover of the young king, Artaserse. This was taken by the youngest member of the cast, the true male soprano sensation, Valer Barna-Sabadus. If you thought Jaroussky was good in this tessitura, try listening to a recording of Barna-Sabadus with your eyes shut and tell me honestly if this is a man or a woman singing. It is extraordinary when you realise this young man is only in his mid-twenties. How much further can he go? Have we finally found a 21st century Farinelli? His singing is well-controlled and consistent throughout his range. To my ears it also has a special, thrilling quality to the timbre which gives his singing an intensity with a hint of vulnerability. To hear him at his best, I can highly recommend his Oehms Classics CD entitled Hasse Reloaded which offers an excellent introduction to another neglected master of opera seria. Mr Barna-Sabadus would be a dream to cast in a travesti role because his face is as handsome as his voice is beautiful.
The fourth revelation of this production was Franco Fagioli, an Argentinian counter-tenor who is probably the nearest equivalent of a dramatic soprano. He has power and a breathtaking technique and is well-established internationally, especially for his Handel roles. Back in 2010 he performed in concert with Cecilia Bartoli and at times the way he sings is strongly reminiscent of Bartoli. Having said that, I initially found the quality of his voice, which varies greatly in timbre from one end of his range to another, an acquired taste, but one which I felt I succeeded in acquiring after about two hours. He doesn’t offer the beauty of sound which Cen?i? has or the clarity and consistency of Jaroussky’s tone, but he is the most heroic of the quartet I’ve mentioned, rather like a Heldentenor on helium.
The fifth counter tenor, in the more minor role of co-conspirator, Megabise, was Yuriy Mynenko. Here again was a fine young counter-tenor singing with poise and control in the alto tessitura. He too offered the power and darker quality of a high tenor, but has been described in the past as a male soprano. A colleague noticed Mynenko has ‘a more dramatic colour than Fagioli at times.’ Certainly he sounds consistently like a man…one man. He won the Song Prize in the 2009 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition and has been heard singing Handel in the UK. I imagine on a platform where he is the only counter-tenor, he really shines.
The odd one out was the tenor, Daniel Behle who has an excellent reputation for his Lieder singing, is a regular soloist internationally in oratorio and is about to take the stage in two Richard Strauss roles in major houses. Although he sings on the recording, he did not appear in the Nancy production and in Paris he sang from a score and looked a little nervous initially. This is a fine, consistent tenor voice and he negotiated the melismatic passages with aplomb. However his reliance on a score detracted somewhat from his portrayal of the scheming villain, especially when Mr Jaroussky danced around him, acting his socks off.
In the concert performances of this run you are treated to Concerto Köln taking centre stage under the energetic baton of Diego Fasolis. His dynamism as a conductor meant that he appeared as much of a protagonist in this drama as his dream team of counter-tenors.
If you don’t know the music of Leonardo Vinci, do give it the attention it deserves, especially Artaserse, which is viewed as his masterpiece. The composer died less than six months after its premiere, rumoured to have been poisoned by an angry husband whom he’d cuckolded. His music, as was his life, is full of passion, dramatic twists and turns, exhilaration and despair. As we face another Verdi anniversary, I shall turn for solace to the delights offered by Gluck’s precursors – Hasse, Vinci and Porpora to name but three. I’ll take five counter-tenors of this quality over one Verdian tenor any day.