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Fanfare Magazine: 37:4 (03-04/2014) 
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Reviewer: Bertil van Boer


I must say that the new number of countertenors singing the often fiendishly difficult arias written originally for the famed castratos has exploded recently. I cannot discern the actual reason for this, though one might blame tacitly such things as the revival of the Baroque operatic repertoire, the attention paid to the development of opera-quality voices that are both powerful and flexible enough to dance their way through the highly complex ornaments and roulades that seem to infest these bravura arias, or perhaps even to the rediscovery that singers such as Farinelli, Senesino, Caffarelli, and host of others were the rock stars of their days, eliciting adulation from all who heard them. The nicely-written booklet notes also dwell a bit on the topic of castratos and sex, which no doubt fascinated the public back then as it does today, judging from the twittering that goes on whenever the subject is brought up in a music history class (and please, that is lower case “twittering,” not the social media version). Whatever the reason, from a musical standpoint, I find this trend interesting and worthwhile, for not only are we at the threshold of reviving many heretofore difficult operatic works from the Baroque and early Classical periods, the heyday of the operatic castrato, we can now hear them without resorting to a practice that is, to say the least, unacceptable in today’s world.

The good news about all this is that it augurs well for the reconnection with names such as Nicola Porpora, Leonardo Leo, Leonardo Vinci, et al. The bad news is that it is still all about the singer, so often, as in this disc, the emphasis is upon showy display arias, with lines that demonstrate a wide range of emotions, from fury to sorrow. Thus, while one has glimpses into the music that these singers wowed their audiences with, the context apart from the diva disc showcase is somewhat more tenuous. Australian countertenor David Hansen has slightly altered this design, focusing on excerpts from works in which rival castratos appeared, choosing an aria that may well be the most significant display work of the piece. The research in advance of the recording unearthed no fewer than eight arias (out of nine) that have not been recorded before; Riccardo Broschi’s “Son qual nave,” from an insertion aria for his famed brother, is included among these, in that its source is apparently a manuscript sent by Farinelli to Vienna with his own emendations showing what sorts of ornamentation he employed. Here, a comparison with previous renditions by Cecilia Bartoli in 2009 and in that B-rated film of 1995, that may be an important stimulus (musically, at least) to the revival, show that Farinelli’s own ideas in the aria were not simply about display, but rather were calculated and finely detailed in terms of the splendid ornamentation. Both beginning and ending arias by Leonardo Vinci (1690–1730) are haughty and powerfully outlined with florid trumpets and drums, the last of which perfectly fits the Indian King Porus’s desire for vengeance against Alexander the Great. The war-like unisons between the voice and brass indicate triumph, not submission. His “Taci o di morte” is lyrical and sedate, the perfect anodyne to the wild flourishes of the furore, but nonetheless effusive in its ornamentation. Indeed, the only tame aria seems to be Antonio Maria Bononcini’s “In te, sposa Griselda” from the opera Griselda. Here the voice and instruments weave in and around each other in a picturesque contrapuntal dance, never intrusive, never over-dominant. Of course, the opera itself was a common subject of the time, and Bononcini’s sensitive setting is far more interesting than, say, Alessandro Scarlatti’s version.

David Hansen’s performance is, in a word, superb. He has the power and accuracy to make short work of this challenging repertory. He can be sonorous and flexible as needed, and he does have a remarkable high register. Only on the occasional lower notes is there a rare hesitancy, but this should not be noticeable given the extraordinary coloratura required for the most demanding arias. The accompaniment of the Academia Montis Regalis blends perfectly, supporting where needed and becoming unobtrusive when the voice predominates, probably just like it would have been during the period. Conductor Alessandro di Marchi chooses a nice range of tempos, and the playing is clear and unambiguous. In short, if you really want to have an idea of what these famed capons were capable of, you should investigate this disc. Countertenor Hansen has, I believe, an extremely important role to play as we become more familiar with and find ourselves attracted to this operatic world. Highly recommended.

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