Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Celebrating 40 years on stage, Max Emanuel Cencic performs a programme of arias Handel wrote for the castrato Senesino

George Frideric Handel: arias and overtures from Giulio Cesare, Radamisto, Poro, Ricardo Primo, Orlando, Tolomeo and Ezio; Max Emanuel Cencic, Armonea Atenea, George Petrou; Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus

Amazingly, counter-tenor Max Emanuel Cencic is celebrating 40 years on stage; he started very young, he is now in his mid-40s. Initially a boy treble whose repertoire included the Queen of the Night's aria, as an adult he sang as a high counter-tenor in the soprano range before retraining to sing alto and mezzo-soprano roles. His Handel explorations have been wide-ranging and for the Saturday evening gala (10 September 2022) at the Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus, Bayreuth, Max Emanuel Cencic performed a programme of Handel arias written for the great alto castrato Senesino. The concert took place on the set of Leonardo Vinci's Alessandro nell'Indie [see my review], in Prinny's red and gold Gothick drawing room, and Cencic was joined on stage by George Petrou and Armonia Atenea. We heard overtures from Radamisto, Giulio Cesare and Tolomeo, plus arias from Giulio Cesare, Radamisto, Poro, Ricardo Primo, Orlando, Tolomeo and Ezio

Handel's relationship with Senesino was complex; the singer was notoriously temperamental and there are plenty of stories about him and Handel. Clearly, Handel satisfied Senesino in that operas would always have the right opportunities for the singer to show off, both his skill at messa di voce as well as the more bravura effects. But Handel challenge Senesino too, the simplicity of some of the arias for instance, or the mad scene in Orlando, though this latter might have been a bridge too far as it was the last role that Senesino sang for Handel.

For all his technical skill, Handel's arias for Senesino use quite a narrow range and the concert barely took Cencic into his high mezzo-soprano. Instead there were plenty of moments using a finely resonant chest voice. In fact, technically the evening was a complete joy as Cencic demonstrated a clear sense of style allied to his strong technique, all with an attractively warm timbre. We did get interpolated high notes in the ornaments, but Cencic largely erred on the side of discretion and taste. His Da Capo repeats had lots to enjoy and little, if anything, to annoy.

The soft-grained sound-quality of the orchestra took some time for the ears to settle to. Playing on the Alessandro set, they had a somewhat recessed, veiled quality. From the opening notes of the overture to Radamisto it was clear that George Petrou had a liking for strong bass lines, no bad thing in this music.

Cencic began with a joyous account of 'Va tacito' from Giulio Cesare. Vibrant and expressive with a fine horn solo, the aria had less sense of a hunter seeking his prey and more of a feeling of celebration of Baroque style. 'Ombra cara' from Radamisto followed, quiet and interior with a fine bassoon solo, Cencic impressed with the way he gave a sense of a single continuous intense line.

The crisp grandeur of the overture to Giulio Cesare was followed by Poro's 'Vedrai con tuo periglio' from Poro; an intriguing choice as the opera is Handel's version of the same libretto as Vinci's Alessandro nell'Indie. Perky with impressive runs, Cencic made Poro in this aria seem very pleased with himself. Part one of the concert ended with another rarity, 'Agitato da fiere tempeste' from Ricardo Primo in which Ricardo likens himself to a pilot controlling the ship in a tempest, with Cencic giving us impressively controlled, fast runs.

Part two opened with 'Non fu gia men forte' from Act One of Orlando where Orlando decides that love and duty do not conflict. A suave orchestral contribution complimented Cencic sense of infectious joy. 'Stile amare' from Tolomeo, where the title character sings of failed love, was internal and intense with a haunting orchestral contribution and a tension that slowly grew. The overture from the same opera followed, crisp bounce, serious grandeur and a fine continuo group.

'Se la mia vita' from Ezio was another rarity, where the title character sings of his desire to fight further for the Emperor. Rather lovely with recorders contrasting with horns, it featured lyrical passages adjunct to more vivid runs. Finally, came 'Vile, se mi dai vita' from Handel's Radamisto, the second version created specially for Senesino, who of course sang the title role. In the aria Radamisto defies his enemy as a coward, and Cencic gave us a fast, vivid account of the aria with some real bite.

The response of the audience was positively rapturous, and we were treated to a final aria as an encore. This was a wonderful concert, full of vivid moments and some stunning singing. Including the encore, Cencic gave us a generous nine arias, but as a programme there was a slight feeling of thinness and I would have liked something something meatier from the orchestra, perhaps a concerto grosso, though maybe this was deliberate so that it was Max Emanuel Cencic's day, as indeed it was.

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