Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Hitting the high notes - Arias for Caffarelli

In 1733 Handel's leading man, the castrato Senesino, left his company having created 17 leading roles. Operatic convention of the time demanded a castrato, so Handel replaced Senesino, with a succession of other castratos, first with Carestini (for whom he wrote Ariodante) and subsequently Conti, Andreoni and Caffarelli. Caffarelli would sing for Handel in the 1737/38 season creating roles in Handel's Faramondo and the title role in Serse. Whereas Senesino had an alto voice, Andreoni was soprano and the others were mezzo-sopranos. But there is one castrato missing, Farinelli the greatest of the age; though he worked in London he never sang for Handel. His closest rival was perhaps Caffarelli, and in fact Caffarelli's period in London was not greatly successful.

Caffarelli was a student of the composer Nicola Porpora (as was Farinelli) and much associated with the music of Hasse and the Naples school. These composers wrote brilliantly, almost instrumentally, for the voice giving the castratos the sort of coloratura showpieces at which they excelled. So quite what Caffarelli made of the rather satirical title role in Handel's Serse I don't know!.

Present day counter-tenors find that the roles written for the alto castratos like Senesino fall comfortably into their tessitura. But the mezzo-soprano castrato roles have traditionally been taken by women in modern revivals, but this is something which is changing, as a generation of counter-tenors develops for whom the higher tessitura holds fewer terrors. Now counter-tenor Franco Fagioli is joining the ranks, releasing a disc on naive of arias written for Caffarelli.


I first came across the Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli singing one of Senesino's roles, Giulio Cesare, from Handel's opera Giulio Cesare with Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra. Now Fagioli seems to be moving into Bartoli territory as he is releasing a disc of music written for Caffarelli, displaying the sort of virtuosity and willingness to go above the stave that Bartoli displayed in her disc of arias written for castratos.

Fagioli's disc is being released on the naive label in the Autumn, and if you live in the UK this is your best chance to hear him as he won't be making a personal appearance in the UK until 2014. On the disc he is accompanied by Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Riccardo Minas. The composers include Hasse, Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo, Nicola Antonio Porpora, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Pasquale Cafaro, Domenico Carro, and Gennaro Manna. Some you will know, others you may not. All excelled at writing a certain type of showy aria. And Fagioli certain displays a technique and willingness to cope, as you can hear on the sample video on YouTube.


As with all such voices, I am curious as to how much stamina Fagioli has in the upper range when singing live. But on disc it certainly sounds worth waiting for.

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