Saturday 12 October 2013

Astonishing! Arias for Caffarelli

Caffarelli was one of the major figures in 18th century Italian opera, a castrato who was as famous as his compatriot Farinelli. In fact both came from Naples and both shared the same teacher, Nicola Porpora. Possessed of an astonishing technique, composers of all varies wrote for him in a career spanning some 30 years. On this new disc from counter-tenor Franco Fagioli and Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Riccardo Minasi, Fagioli sings a selection of arias written for Caffarelli by Hasse, Vinci, Leo, Porpora, Cafaro, Sarro and Manna. And what arias they are, alternately bravura and pathetic, each was designed to show off Caffarelli's voice and technique to its utmost.

Unlike his rival Farinelli, who was modest in person, Caffarelli was the ultimate diva and his career is littered with anecdotes about his behaviour. He made one appearance in London, in the 1737/38 season for Handel, but though he sang the title roles in Handel's Serse and Faramondo, he did not make the sort of impression that Farinelli did. Caffarelli returned to Naples and a long association with the new San Carlo Theatre there.

Caffarelli's voice had an enormous compass, over two octaves from the A below middle C to the C two octaves above. Such a wide range was not necessarily a trait in the castrato voice, Senesino had quite a narrow compass. And Caffarelli excelled in trills, roulades and chromatic scale passages, whilst composers seemed to reflect his rather fiery nature in the music that they wrote for him.

Having heard Franco Fagioli live in concert with Cecilia Bartoli singing Cesare, to Bartoli's Cleopatra, from Handel's Giulio Cesare, a role written for the alto castrato Senesino, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Fagioli's voice has a significant upwards extension and on this disc he regularly goes above the stave. He also shows himself adept at the sort of runs and trills, at great speed, required of him, in stunning fashion, though occasionally he veers a little to far in the direction of the shaking-the-dice style of performance favoured by Bartoli.

The disc opens with two arias from Hasse's Siroe, in which Caffarelli played the role of Medarse. All of the composers on the disc are associated with Naples, which was Caffarelli's home base. Johann Adolf Hasse is the only non-Neapolitan, like Handel before him Hasse was German born but travelled to Italy for some Italian polish and was based in Naples for six or seven years. He was adept at writing arias which showed of his singers to striking effect. Fra l'orror della tempesta opens with a briskly exciting ritornelli, followed by Fagioli's brilliant contribution complete with bravura runs, everything that such a performance should be. His voice has quite a tight vibrato, with a bright forward sound and is well into the mezzo-soprano range and he appears to go up to  top A with ease. The second aria from Hasse's Siroe, Ebb da te la vita is a gentler affair but still with rather an athletic vocal line. Fagioli shows great musicality in the way he folds the technical challenges naturally into the music. It is quite a long aria, well over seven minutes long, and Fagioli shows fine control.

Next comes an aria from Leonardo Vinci's Semiramide riconosciuta which was premiered at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples in 1744. In braccio a mille furie is full of bravura brilliance, trumpets and a toe-tapping ritornello, with a vocal line to match. This is a dazzling performance, with extraordinary leaps and showing off Fagioli's full range. But it is the aria in which his performance style gets dangerously closest to being too stylised. By contrast Misero pargoletto from Leonardo Leo's Demofoonte (premiered at the San Carlo in 1741) is a gentler piece with an attractively sinuous vocal style and a more sustained style of singing.

Popora's Semiramide riconosciuta (premiered at the San Carlo in 1739) is a simile aria about a ship in a raging storm, so we have another brisk to-tapping number, with Fagioli showing off his impressive range as well as his dexterousness with runs and trills.

Pergolesi's Lieto cosi talvolta from Adriano in Siria (premiered in Naples at the San Bartolomeo Theatre in 1734) is the longest item on the disc at over eleven minutes. An aria about a caged nightingale, it features a lovely solo oboe part with the voice duetting with the oboe. There are some lovely chromatic touches to the melody and, of course, a lot of trilling. The results are seductive and lovely; Fagioli and Minasi ensure that the aria flows well and does not outstay its welcome.

Leo's Sperai vicino il lido (also from hi Demofoonte) gives the singer the best of both worlds, alternating bravura and lyric sections.

Rendimi piu sereno from Cafaro's L'Ipermestra comes from 1751. (Pasquale Cafaro was in fact a pupil of Leonardo Leo) Though from later in Caffarelli's career, the aria displays no indication of Caffarelli declining in powers. It is a gentle, lyric piece but with a lot of decoration to the vocal line. Fagioli executes this delicately with fine control.

Trumpets return for Un cor che ben ama, from Domenico Sarro's Valdemaro in which Caffarelli made his debut in Rome in 1726, singing the female role of Alvida at the age of 16. Fagioli is confidently bravura here and the aria includes some nice duetting with the trumpe.

The disc ends with a pair of arias written by Gennaro Manna from the 1740's. The first, Cara ti lascio, addio from Lucio Vero ossia il vologeso is delicate with a beautifully ornamented vocal line. The second, Odo il suono di tromba guerriera is fast and brilliant, scale passages galore, top A's and even what might be a top C at the end. Astonishing.

Fagioli is well supported by Riccardo Minasi and Il Pomo d'Oro who provide fine accompaniments, some infectious playing and brilliant bravura. The CD comes in a handsome book which as 20 pages of colour illustrations, and 10 pages of English text about Caffarelli's career, along with full texts and translations. If I have a quibble it is that little is said about the composers themselves.

Besides being a picture of Caffarelli the artist, the arias on this disc form an interesting digest of the important Neapolitan school of Italian opera which flourished in the 18th century. Not every aria on this disc is great music, and some pander a little to much to the original singer's desire for display. But they provide a striking picture of Caffarelli as a performer and are here given in stunning performances from Franco Fagioli.

Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Fra l'orror deall tempesta (Siroe) (1733) [5.05]
Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) - Ebbi da te la vita (Siroe) (1733) [7.26]
Leonardo Vinci (1690 - 1730) - Un braccio a mille furie (Semiramide riconosciuta) (1744) [5.09]
Leonardo Leo (1694 - 1744) - Misero pargoletto (Demofoonte) (1741) [7.38]
Nicola Antonio Porpora (1686 - 1768) - Passagier che sulla sponda (1739) [6.22]
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710 - 1736) - Lieto cosi talvolta (1734) [11.12]
Leonardo Leo (1694 - 1744) - Sperai vicino il lido (Demofoonte) (1741) [6.11]
Pasquale Cafaro (1716 - 1787) - Rendimi piu sereno (L'permestra) (1751) [8.03]
Domenico Sarro (1679 - 1744) - Un cor che ben ama (Valdemaro) (1726) [4.34]
Gennaro Manna (1715-1779) - Car ti lascio, addio (Luci Vero ossia il vologeso)  (1745) [8.43]
Gennaro Manna (1715-1779) - Odo il suono di tromba guerriera (Lucia Papiro dittatore ) (1748) [8.09]
Franco Fagioli (counter tenor)
Il Pomo d'Oro
Riccardo Minasi (conductor)
Recorded 25 August to 3 September 2012 at the Villa San Fermo, convento dei Pavoniani, Lonigo
naive v5333 1CD

Franco Fagioli - Arias for Caffarelli
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 08 2013
Rating: 5.0
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