The four centuries since opera’s birth have seen periodic attempts to reform the genre and purge it of all that is “irrational, monstrous and grotesque,” as the philosopher and poet Francesco Algarotti wrote in his 1755 “Essay on the Opera.” The would-be reformer protested that “all the bounds of discretion” had been “wantonly overleapt,” and that operatic arias had become “whelmed under, and disfigured, by crowded ornaments.”
Though ascetics have often inveighed against the thrills of virtuoso singing, their entreaties have gone largely, and happily, unheeded. Born of a prudish loathing of pleasure, their strictures wobble on conceptual grounds, too. After all, what kind of operatic singing does not require superhuman prowess? As Cecilia Bartoli remarked a few years back, “I recall that when Farinelli was accused of being too much of a virtuoso, he started singing only slow arias—showing off other forms of virtuosity!”
Three recent recordings – two of arias from the glory days of the prime donne and primi uomini and one featuring music by a composer who fancied himself a reformer – serve up wide-raging modes of delight and bravura.
Karina Gauvin: “Prima Donna” (ATMA Classique)
The Québec-born soprano Karina Gauvin, who was profiled in Opera News in 2011, visits the States less often than her admirers might wish but has some three dozen recordings to her credit. Her latest ATMA Classique release, “Prima Donna,” comprises in the main arias written for the legendary diva Anna Maria Strada del Pò by George Frideric Handel, Leonardo Vinci (no relation to the Tuscan polymath), and Antonio Vivaldi. Gauvin is a queenly musician with a gift for making exceedingly difficult arias seem a breeze: she brings dazzling aplomb to “Scherza in mar” from Handel’s Lotario and summons easy, graceful staccati in “Tortorella se rimira” from Vinci’s Astianatte. The Arion Baroque Orchestra under Alexander Weimann offer elegant support throughout.
Though Gauvin does not match the heart-rending intensity of Renée Fleming as Handel’s Alcina, she lavishes gleaming, womanly tone and regal misery on four of the enchantress’s scenes. And to return to the point made by Cecilia Bartoli, "Care selve” from Handel’s Atalanta is among the sparest and most exacting of arias, one that undoes singers with slipshod techniques. Gauvin’s performance exemplifies the virtuosity needed to excel even (and perhaps especially) in no-frills music and can bear comparison to versions by Alma Gluck, Arleen Auger and other greats. Gauvin’s upcoming North American dates include Handel’s Theodora in Québec and Montréal, more Handel at Toronto’s Luminato Festival, and Pergolesi at the Hollywood Bowl.
Max Emanuel Cencic: “Venezia” (Virgin Classics)
Gauvin stars in a much-praised Decca set of Handel’s Alessandro with the Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, whose latest recital for Virgin Classics is "Venezia," a program of music associated with La Serenissima. “Venezia” is worth acquiring for the accompaniments alone, played with blistering panache by Il Pomo d’Oro under Riccardo Minasi. While I might rank Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies or Anthony Roth Costanzo ahead of him in terms of sheer tonal beauty, Cencic has monumental personality and derring-do. Not for him the aw-shucks, girl- or guy-next-door modesty affected by so many of today’s singers: Cencic’s ever-evolving and positively dandyish look is a throwback to the days of Farinelli and Gizziello and something to relish.
Cencic brings pathos and grandeur to “Sposa, non mi conosci” from Geminiano Giacomelli’s Merope, an aria that Antonio Vivaldi adapted as “Sposa son disprezzata” for his pastiche Bajazet. (A challenge to any moaners out there: listen to Cencic’s recording of this aria followed by Bartoli’s and Joyce DiDonato’s and tell me that we do not live in a golden age of singing.) “Dolce mio ben” from Francesco Gasparini’s Flavio, a slow, chaste aria in the mold of “Care selve,” is all lustrous rapture as sung by Cencic over Il Pomo d’Oro’s achingly beautiful playing.
More florid pieces, including “Anche un misero arboscello” from Giuseppe Selitto’s Nitocri and “Anche in mezzo a perigliosa” (attributed to Antonio Vivaldi), reveal a few shrill or sinewy notes, but when Cencic goes full throttle he means business, and you sit up and listen. For now, those wishing to hear him live in the near future must travel to Europe, but his large and growing catalog of recordings will keep stateside admirers happily occupied.
Jonas Kaufmann: Wagner (Decca)
Richard Wagner claimed to be no friend of florid singing, and some critics maintain that the high, elaborate music he wrote for Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger conveys his anti-Semitic distaste for Jewish cantillation. Wagner was also a mass of contradictions: he admired Mattia Battistini, a paragon of Italianate mellifluousness; and he loved and imitated Vincenzo Bellini’s music, which uses both fioritura and slow, sustained melody as vehicles for the most piercing and exalted expression.
Though no virtuoso in the too-many-notes nuance of the term, Jonas Kaufmann knows how to sing softly, spin a beautiful legato line, and communicate without resorting to the dreaded “Bayreuth bark” that surely would have horrified Wagner. There can be a tense, throaty quality to his singing that I do not hear in such past Wagnerians as Aureliano Pertile, Ivan Kozlovsky or Franz Völker, but the dark splendor of his timbre and his intelligent, open-hearted way of making music carry the day.
The prize of Kaufmann’s latest Decca recital, “Wagner,” is the prayer from Rienzi, “Allmächtiger Vater, blick herab,” which he begins in a rapt mezza voce and builds slowly to a ringing climax. He sings the complete version of the Grail narrative from Lohengrin with melting beauty and a sense of mystery (listen to the reverence with which he lingers over eine Taube, “a dove”). And who knew that a tenor could bring such vulnerability to the Wesendonck-Lieder (in Felix Mottl’s orchestration)? Wagner called “Im Triebhaus” and “Träume” “studies for Tristan und Isolde.” Dare we hope that the same holds true for Kaufmann?
The Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra under Donald Runnicles plays divinely throughout “Wagner.” As for Kaufmann, if you have not done so already, kindly drop everything and obtain tickets to see and hear him in the title role of Wagner’s Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera (or Live in HD at your local cinema). You can catch Kaufmann elsewhere, but probably not in such inspired company, because the Met Parsifal is the operatic gift of a lifetime. François Girard’s staging is surpassingly beautiful, Kaufmann’s fellow cast members are superb, and Daniele Gatti’s conducting is ravishing.
And wherever you see and hear Kaufmann, Max Emanuel Cencic, or Karina Gauvin, remember: it’s never the number of notes that counts, but the beauty and meaning that each artist creates with those notes.