Friday 28 October 2022

The Crown: American counter-tenor Randall Scotting his disc of arias written for the castrato Senesino and the research that went into creating it

Randall Scotting (Photo Joel Benjamin)
Randall Scotting (Photo Joel Benjamin)

Despite living in London for eight years, the American counter-tenor Randall Scotting is not a well-known name on these shores. However, having made his Royal Opera House debut in 2019 as Apollo in Britten's Death in Venice and just released his debut recital disc, The Crown: Heroic Arias for Senesino, with Laurence Cummings and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) on Signum Classics, that should be about to change. And we caught Randall singing the role of the Refugee in Jonathan Dove's Flight in a filmed performance from Seattle Opera [see my review].

The repertoire on the new disc, arias by Bononcini, Ariosti, Giaj, Orlandini, Ristori, Giacomelli, and Lotti, is very much the fruit of Randall's years in London when he was working on a Ph D at the Royal College of Music, researching into lesser-known Baroque composers. The disc assembles arias written for the great castrato Senesino, best known for creating a sequence of major roles for Handel. Randall explains that as well as creating over a dozen roles for Handel, Senesino had a huge European reputation during the 1720s and 1730s and was very much a superstar.

People nowadays know Senesino's name, but not the significant amount of music that was written for him. Randall's research for his Ph D involved locating music in archives and creating editions, thus feeding directly into this disc. Randall enjoys this sense of being involved in the rediscovery of the music, but by looking at the arias written for Senesino, Randall also learned a great deal more about the castrato's voice.

Randall had sung several of Senesino's Handel roles and the arias seemed to fit him. He describes his voice as a mezzo-soprano-ish alto, with a high extension and both the tessitura and technical aspects of Senesino's arias suited Randall. Senesino was renowned for his dramatic abilities, as well as his technical skill including his notable messa di voce, and he liked arias that enabled him to show off these different aspects of his voice.

Francesco Bernardi ('Senesino') by Alexander van Aken, after Thomas Hudson - mezzotint, published 1735 - Nationl Portrait Gallery (NPG D1059)
Francesco Bernardi ('Senesino') by Alexander van Aken, after Thomas Hudson
mezzotint, published 1735 - National Portrait Gallery (NPG D1059)
The music that other composers wrote for Senesino tells us more about the singer and helps put Handel's music into context. Two of the composers on the disc, Bononcini and Ariosti, were Handel's colleagues in the Royal Academy of Music in London, he would have heard their work. Interestingly, Randall points out that Bononcini's music for Senesino is often written a third higher than Handel's, but Bononcini also uses Senesino's lower register more than Handel. Senesino was very concerned with how his was received, that the music should show him as his best. Randall feels that numbers where the audience is able to draw the singer in such as 'Dolce Sogno' from Bononcini's La Griselda (on the disc) show this. We have accounts of how moving and touching Senesino was in the music. 

Senesino had over 100 roles written for him in his 33-year career, he certainly knew how to build fame for himself. Randall points to the example of an aria by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, written for Senesino in Venice in 1729 that included an ornament, martellato, that does not occur in any other aria written for the singer. A little research showed that also appearing in the opera was star soprano Faustina Cuzzoni, whose trademark the ornament was. This was Senesino essentially saying 'Anything you can do ...'

These insights into his personality make Randall describe Senesino as 'a bit of a shit'. It is clear that Handel kept a stronger control over the music he wrote for the singer than some other composers, yet Handel was able to show the singer off well. Handel and Senesino's relationship was never an easy one. When Senesino arrived in London in 1720, Handel called him a damned fool. For most of the first Royal Academy of Music, their relationship was adequate, each realising the mutual benefit they drew from it. But things fell apart during the second Royal Academy. For a start, a role like the title role in Handel's Orlando was not to Senesino's taste as there were few traditional Da Capo arias to enable him to show off, and Handel keeps the voice until control. Frustrated that Handel would not do what Senesino wanted him to do, the singer went behind Handel's back to create the rival Opera of the Nobility.

But we also have to bear in mind that Senesino's voice was ageing. After leaving London for the last time, he was rarely well received in Italy. Randall feels that his was not helped by Senesino persisting in singing primo uomo roles in large theatres (such as the San Carlo in Naples which seated 3,000), whereas at that stage of his career he would have been more suitable to secondary roles in smaller theatres - another insight into the man's personality. And all this helps inform the approach to the music that Handel and others wrote for the singer.

There are seven composers on the disc, Bononcini and Ariosti who worked alongside Handel in London, Lotti who wrote operas for Senesino in Dresden in a style that was less innovative, (an aria from his 1718 opera, Ascanio is on the disc), plus Giaj, Orlandini, Ristori, and Giacomelli. Handel was adept at marrying music and drama in his operas, but Randall feels that these other composers only really get the bones of the drama, so that performing the music takes more insight from the performer to bring the music out. And Randall comments that this is very true of Lotti's music were the musical outlines and patterns mean you have to know where to ornament. And his Ph D comes in handy here too, because of his stylistic research into types of types of trills, cadenzas and the like. Unfortunately, there is very little documentation for the types of ornament that Senesino used. His younger rival, Farinelli (who sang in London but never sang for Handel), wrote out his ornamentations in a presentation manuscript that was a gift for a patron. But Senesino did not seem to care about creating monuments for his legacy, so we have not such comparable information.

Some of the arias on the disc can sound challenging, but they are so well written for the voice that they come out well. The Lotti aria is different, more instrumental in the way he conceives the vocal writing. Here, Randall and I have a something of a fascinating diversion in our discussion talking about other research that Randall has done, in fact our conversation was full of fascinating highways and byways of research. One of Farinelli's most famous arias (frequently performed today) was 'Son qual nave' written by Farinelli's brother Riccardo Broschi, but whilst looking in archives Randall came across an earlier version of the aria by the composer Giovanni Antonio Giaj (whose music is also on the disc). Giaj's version of 'Son qual nave' has the same melody line for the A section, with different accompaniment and a different B section; so, it it seems that Riccardo Broschi reworked an existing aria as a showpiece for his brother. Giaj's music is not well known, he wrote operas for Turin, which was a major opera centre, but the composer seems to have been a bit of a recluse and his music did not spread. He was one of three composers whose work Randall took as operatic case studies in his Ph D. 

Musical archaeology fascinates Randall, and as another example his cites Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, his Reform opera which premiered in Vienna in 1762, but many of the features in this opera can be found in a version of Orfeo written by Josef Fuchs some 50 years earlier. Randall points out that often forget that composers were not working in isolation. 

Recording The Crown (Photo Nic Mramer)
Recording The Crown - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings, Randall Scotting
(Photo Nic Mramer)

He now finds it hard to perform music the 18th century where he has not created the edition, as he prefers being involved and does not trust older editions. He enjoys finding the manuscript, and creating his own edition, interrogating the manuscript and making his own choices, rather relying on someone else's version. And this influences the way he performs and interprets the music.

They are hoping to put together a concert based on the disc, but in the UK, in terms of performing, Randall is new, he is mainly known as an academic, so selling the programme with him is harder. He is aware of the need to pay attention to the business side of things but admits that it is not his passion. His reputation is growing, not only has he made his Royal Opera debut, but he has performed at the Met in New York and will be returning to Seattle. 

His next project is a new disc, to be released in February 2023, which he smilingly refers to as an anti-valentine. Called Love Sick, it is a disc of lute songs with lutenist Stephen Stubbs. This is very much a pandemic project. He started talking with the OAE about The Crown in 2019, but plans had to be put on hold. He found everyone was doing lockdown projects, but this type of personal project did not work for him. Feeling somewhat desperate, he turned to lute songs.

Chatting to Randall, it is clear that he is very aware of his voice and style. He is a big man, tall and imposing, and he works out, finding that it grounds him and forms an antidote to the emotional aspect of his singing job. His voice is all of a piece with this, somewhat different to the prevailing style of counter tenors. This leads us to a fascinating discussion about how voices have become more homogenous. Randall comments that nowadays there tend to be two types of tenor, Peter Pears or Luciano Pavarotti, whereas in the early 19th century there were some 20 different types of tenor. Recordings have a strong influence; a single recording is simply one way to record a work but becomes the way to record the piece with other singers fitting themselves to it. 

Randall Scotting (Photo Stephanie Girard)
Randall Scotting (Photo Stephanie Girard)
He comes from a small town in Colorado and sang baritone in high school before studying the cello. When he went to college, he knew he wanted to study music but wasn't sure what, though he knew that he wasn't ready to give up on the cello. So, he studied cello and voice, and studied composition and piano privately. Growing up in a small town in Colorado there was little in the way of culture, and he comments that it was a challenge. At college, he sang baritone in the choir but during sectionals would sing along with the sopranos, not realising that this ability was unusual. He mentioned it to his voice teacher and was lucky that the teacher had studied in Germany where the counter tenor voice was more common, particularly in Bach. 

For a year, Randall sang baritone, tenor and counter-tenor. Counter-tenor Andreas Scholl's teacher was a friend of Randall's American teacher, and so for his first visit to Europe, Randall sang for Scholl's teacher, and they gave Randall encouragement. He was just 19, and he switched to counter-tenor. At another school in the USA, he had a teacher who knew more about the counter-tenor voice and encouraged Randall to concentrate on the bread-and-butter repertoire, including Handel and Britten's Oberon. But Randall, at first, was not drawn to Baroque music and felt that it wasn't for him. In the visual arts he loved Kandinsky and Jackson Pollok and wanted to translate this modern style into music. 

Now he balances the bread and butter with other more challenging projects, such as Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for Mad King. He has great curiosity about different modes of expression and mentions the music of Olga Neuwirth, he enjoys the full range of what a voice can represent. In Spring 2022, he made his debut at the Bavarian State Opera as Michael in Georg Friedrich Haas' opera Thomas, a work which requires the singers to work in microtones down to a sixth of a tone. One of the challenges of learning the music was finding the right tools to use. He comments that many contemporary counter-tenor roles play up the voice's otherness, and he is interested in repositioning modern counter-tenor writing towards the dramatic. He is talking to composer friends about the possibilities.

The Crown: Heroic Arias for Senesino - Randall Scotting, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Laurence Cummings - Signum Classics [further details]

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