(Georg-Friedrich-Händel Halle, with Orfeo 55 and Nathalie Stutzmann, 4 June 2015)
In early June, all Baroque roads lead to Halle in Saxony-Anhalt, which holds an annual Handel festival in honour of its most famous son. As a Londoner by adoption, I confess to a slight sense of possessiveness over Handel, who moved away from Halle at the age of eighteen (as opposed to the 47 years he spent living and working in London), but I suppose we can share him. And it is true that Halle’s festival feels considerably sleeker and higher-profile than London’s equivalent earlier this year: there are posters and banners everywhere; every performance was packed with people; and the programme featured a positive galaxy of international Baroque talent.
And so I’d come all the way to Germany so that, in the course of one long weekend, I could see no fewer than seven countertenors, including four absolutely top-flight singers: Philippe Jaroussky, Max Cencic, Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata. We kicked off only a couple of hours after our arrival in Halle, bristling with anticipation in the aptly-named Händel Halle as we waited for Jaroussky’s festival concert to begin. It’s an event which had special resonance because it included the presentation to him of this year’s Handel Prize. He was accompanied by the ensemble Orfeo 55, founded and conducted by the multi-talented Nathalie Stutzmann and the recital turned out to be quite a treat for several reasons – not least because virtually all the programme was unfamiliar to me, having been drawn largely from from the operas Deidamia (1741) and Arianna in Creta (1734) and the serenate Parnasso in festa (1734) and Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708).
We began with the Sinfonia from Act 3 of Rinaldo (1731), its stately pace gradually giving way to a livelier rhythm rising from within. It was the perfect introduction. Jaroussky made his first appearance with Apollo’s aria in praise of Jupiter, Gran tonante, from Parnasso in festa, with its gorgeously swelling opening that has a hint of Zadok the Priest about it. It was my first experience of hearing Jaroussky’s voice live and, at least in this first aria, it came across as poised and delicate but a little on the faint side. Nevertheless his command of coloratura was impressive, as was his breath control – those pure messa di voce notes are his absolute strong point.
Another instrumental piece followed, this time the beautiful Allegro and Adagio from Handel’s Concerto grosso in G Major. I’m afraid I am really not very good at talking about instrumental music, but I was impressed with the way that the entire programme was arranged. Not only did it flow well, but it was very intelligently balanced to offer a variety of moods. And I found Stutzmann’s conducting fascinating to watch. She’s a true master at it, shifting the pace from brisk and bouncy to languidly slow, with long and sweeping legato lines.
Jaroussky came back with Orfeo’s accompanied recitative Dopo d’aver perduto and aria Ho perso il caro ben from Parnasso. This was much more to my taste. He sang with passion and technical excellence, and there were some more powerful notes; but always underlaid by that same sense of delicacy and clarity. Again I admired his ability to hold those very light, almost shimmering lines. (I noted that this aria sounded a little like Son nata a lagrimar; that made me smile later.) By the end, having gone through all the shades of loss, Jaroussky looked utterly forlorn and, as he sank back into his chair, I suspect I wasn’t the only person in the hall who wanted to give him a hug. While he recovered, Orfeo 55 played the Musette and Larghetto from the Concerto grosso in G Minor, with refreshing switches from languor to liveliness.
Next up, Jaroussky returned to the theme of parting with Ulisse’s aria Perdere il bene amato from Deidamia. For me, this was probably the least successful aria of the evening due to the B section (‘Furore disperato!‘), which required Jaroussky to turn on the flash and fire. Furore isn’t his strong point and he came across instead as sounding merely rather vexed, although he immediately redeemed himself with a masterfully delicate messa di voce in the da capo section on ‘Pedere il bene amato‘. We then had another instrumental break with the lovely Largo and Allegro from the Concerto grosso in B Major, before returning to Ulisse: this time the aria No, quella beltà non amo. Jaroussky tackled the striding rhythm and almost immediate plunge into formidable coloratura very well: it was great fun with a little bit of swagger to it. It’s also a very funny aria because Ulisse dismisses Deidamia’s girlish beauty in favour of that of her friend Pyrrha – amusing, because Pyrrha is the young Achilles disguised as a girl and hidden among Deidamia and her sisters.
If the first half had been enjoyable, the second half turned out to be a stunner. We started off with Aci’s aria Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, which felt similar to one of those nightingale arias. A throaty, tantalising oboe melody suggested the warbling of a bird, twining in and out of Jaroussky’s voice. Once again he shone at those very fine lifting threads of melody which he carried up, swelling as they rose, or gently allowed to sweep down the scale. But the most striking moment for me was the da capo – the lingering on ‘lieto’ and ‘vola’ followed by an extraordinary handling of the ‘ca-‘ in ‘canto’, which became a fluttering long note of sublime grace. I swiftly decided that if I am ever prescribed singing as a cure for melancholy, something like this would be high on the list. In fact, I decided that I’d probably had my favourite part of the programme and settled back to enjoy the rest without any further expectations. This was foolish.
As the orchestra took over for the overture to the Concerto grosso in D minor, Jaroussky simply turned his back to the audience and stood watching them. At the end of this grand and monumental piece, we were due for another of Aci’s arias, but first there was a recitativo for Polifemo, Or poiché sordi sono. And, when the solitary theorbo was suddenly joined by a voice, an almost electric shock ran through me – as through most of the audience. This gorgeously deep, dark, spicy voice couldn’t possibly be Jaroussky. And then, slowly, Stutzmann turned around.*
I don’t have the words to describe her voice: she’s one of those singers who makes a powerful impact when heard in person. Rich and earthy and full of shifting shadows, her voice offered a counterbalance to Jaroussky’s seraphic tones and Stutzmann ended her recitativo by pushing down her range as far as it would go – further, interestingly, than virtually all the countertenors we’ve heard to date, sweeping down almost into baritone. The hall was open-mouthed. And then, after this amazingly deep woman’s voice, Jaroussky suddenly cut in for his heart-rending aria Verso gia l’alma, his voice like a crystal knife cutting velvet (it sounded so incongruous that there was some guilty giggling in the audience). The way they played it was remarkable, simply electrifying.
I’ll be completely frank, I was so impressed by this that I perhaps didn’t concentrate on the rest of the programme as much as I should have done. We had another orchestral section to give us time to gather our wits, this time the Allegro from the Concerto grosso in A minor, and then we moved onto Arianna in Creta with Teseo’s aria Sol ristoro di mortali, with its gentle mournfulness. When Jaroussky finished singing, he closed his eyes and stood in silence as Stutzmann sang a little piece of recitativo (I’m not quite sure how it fits in because it isn’t mentioned in the programme).
He remained standing, eyes shut in pain or contemplation, as the orchestra turned to the Largo from the Concerto grosso in B major, with a haunting rise and fall of cellos and, once again, the lonely and slightly eerie cry of the oboe. I don’t know what this piece is meant to mean, but to me it suggested the clearing of skies after a storm, or sunrise; it cleared the air ready for the final piece, Teseo’s aria Qui ti sfido, o mostro infame! This was driving me mad because I knew the aria so well but I’ve never listened to Arianna; I’ve just realised that it appears on Jaroussky’s Carestini CD, so that explains why it’s so familiar. Here, in his closing piece, he was channelling the kind of earnest, starry-eyed young hero he does so well, and it was a very enjoyable conclusion.
Naturally there was rapturous applause (I note that German audiences don’t really get going until the third curtain call. I also note, to my glee, that it is perfectly acceptable for grown adults to drum their feet energetically on the floor during applause). Our first encore was an aria from The Choice of Hercules, which I don’t know at all, and which I shall have to look up; the second was another aria for Teseo, but this time from the opera Teseo itself. And then – after the speeches and the presentation of the Handel Prize – we had one final, completely wonderful encore: Jaroussky and Stutzmann sang the duet Son nata a lagrimar from Giulio Cesare. It’s one of their signature pieces when singing together and it is absolutely stupendous. Their voices blend beautifully and you can well believe in them as mother and son bewailing their fate. It was the perfect end.
As some of you know, I have slightly mixed feelings about Jaroussky’s voice: I find him extremely good at a particular kind of singing, but he doesn’t have the vocal oomph to carry off the flashier end of the Baroque canon. His youthful tones have the clear, linear elegance of an Ingres drawing, whereas I have a weakness for more richly textured, voluptuous, Rubenseque voices. Seeing him in person did little to change my judgement, but the concert played to his strengths and so I think I’ve come to better appreciate his skill with the slow, mournful or eloquent arias.
I also now have an immense respect for the man himself. He is the most famous countertenor in the world (we could argue about him vis-a-vis Scholl, I suppose) and yet there was no grandstanding – though if anyone could get away with it, he could. He just sat quietly on the stage during the instrumental pieces, rose to sing and then sat again or turned to watch. This meant that the recital wasn’t constantly interrupted by his entrances, and gave it the feel of a coherent whole, flowing from vocal to instrumental and back again. (This was emphasised by Stutzmann’s tight grip on the reins: she obviously wanted to keep up the pace, and it worked very well.)
At the end he came to do some signing of programmes and CDs: the queue was immense, but he spent two or three minutes with everyone. There was no sense of being on a production line: he didn’t imply that he had to move onto the next person or that he was in a hurry to head off to dinner. He wasn’t even being gracious, because that suggests condescension: he was just remarkably personable and down-to-earth. He’s a very smart man. And, incidentally, he surely has a portrait tucked away in some dark attic somewhere, because despite being almost forty he still looks like a charmingly precocious sixth former. All things considered, I came away very impressed with the whole Jaroussky ‘brand’, and I certainly wasn’t predisposed to be.
I hope to have the chance to see him again one day, but I don’t know when that will be. We asked him teasingly at the end when he was coming back to London (having utterly failed to get a ticket for his lunchtime concert at the Wigmore in December). He was non-committal – confessing that he wasn’t sure that the English were all that fond of what he did. I’ve heard that before from other countertenors, but to hear it from someone of Jaroussky’s stature is rather concerning, and I tried to persuade him that we just need to be exposed to more good singing and then people will become broader-minded. However, that’s a long and weary rant for another day. For now, suffice it to say that we left our first concert in Halle content and buzzing with excitement – and a good thing too, because this was only the beginning…
* For non-Baroque readers, Stutzmann came to conducting relatively recently: she was and still is a formidable contralto
16 thoughts on “Philippe Jaroussky: Festival Concert”
As you know I'm no Jaroussky fan but from your post I gather the man is a consummate performer and all around nice guy, which is something I can appreciate. Also, glad you had the chance to experience Stutzmann live, the contralto flavour is a whole different thing even from mezzos. I haven't heard her live yet but hope to in the not so distant future. I'm already slightly envious of your trip 😉
I just feel as if I spend my life trying to promote countertenors to my English friends, and trying to persuade countertenors that the English aren't all going to look down their noses at them. It's exhausting! And you're right, it's not helped by the tendency of the press to make rather personal remarks. The reaction to Fagioli's performance in Idomeneo is another example. Granted, it wasn't the best role for him, but there were many more absurd things about the production, and yet he seems to have borne the brunt of it. The most ridiculous thing about the whole issue is that all this music was written for us Brits in the first place and now, because people have outdated ideas about countertenors (weak voice – strained – only sing Dowland), we're missing out on some of the really cool revival productions.
Anyway. Let's look on the bright side. The Wigmore are doing a huge amount with countertenors this autumn so let's hope that good reviews follow. Fagioli got fantastic reviews for his recital last year, and both he and Cencic are coming back; Andreas Scholl is doing a concert with Iestyn Davies; there's also a Scholl concert at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; Bejun Mehta will be at the Wigmore; and Cencic and Sabata will be singing in Tamerlano at the Barbican. Maybe little by little we can try to get our compatriots to actually give these singers a go and see how good they are… 😉
Got slightly carried away there. When I say “all this music”, I mean “lots of the Handel operas I've been talking about”. Not Idomeneo, obviously.
Thank you for the balanced and detailed review! I had to laugh at the closing lines; I tried to convince him in Neumarkt that there are a few people in England who do like him. He remained unconvinced, and laughed off the remark – regarding the regular bashing from The Times, this is understandable.
Me neither, not per se, but I've got a lot more time for him now. Being a nice chap is severely underrated and I was seriously impressed by how completely unassuming he was both in performance and in person. It makes for some interesting contrasts…
And yes, Stutzmann's involvement was really the thing that gave this recital such punch for me. When she started singing Polifemo I was so stuck for words that I just wrote WOW in massive capital letters in my notebook. Nothing if not articulate, you see? Hopefully she'll come to London at some point soon, although there's nothing on her schedule at the moment. I'm still kicking myself that I missed her Heroes in the Shadows recital on Saturday night. In retrospect, I could easily have fitted it in after Alessandro and it's my big regret of the weekend that I didn't make more of an effort to make it work.
I was surprised at what you (both) were saying about countertenors and the UK, as obviously Wigmore Hall is very welcoming and there are excellent local countertnors for Baroque lovers. Maybe it's still the somewhat subdued attitude towards Baroque opera?
I don't understand it, Dehgg. And I can rant about this at truly extraordinary length, so I'll save the long version for next time you come over for dinner. But in summary, part of the problem is probably that, as you say, your average classical music audience in Britain isn't that familiar with Baroque in general. I've spoken to several people recently whose idea of early opera is late Mozart and, consequently, the conversation's foundered pretty quickly because my idea of late opera is early Mozart. 😉 Thank goodness for the Wigmore, as you say; and hopefully, as they make it more mainstream, the audience will grow correspondingly.
My difficulty is that I came into this field through countertenors and so I simply can't understand why people find it weird to see a male role being sung by a formidably talented man, rather a woman. That's not to undermine our excellent mezzos. But you show me a mezzo doing a brilliant rendition of a male role, and I can (probably) find someone like Fagioli absolutely blasting through it at a similarly splendid level. Until the 'general' classical audience give themselves the chance to hear something like that, they're stuck with old stereotypes about the voice type which simply aren't true any more.
It's true that things are changing. Yes, we have *some* excellent British countertenors but I reckon you could count our home-grown world-class singers on the fingers of one hand, and have some room left over. Iestyn Davies seems to have single-handedly been promoting the countertenor voice in the UK and all credit to him – his performance in Farinelli did a huge amount of good, but his various interviews also showed that the general public have no idea what a countertenor is (the number of questions about whether he was 'all right'…). So maybe it's just a matter of time. We're lucky that the Wigmore are taking such a stand, because I genuinely believe that if people actually hear Fagioli or Cencic (or Mehta, or Scholl, or Davies) live, they'll be deeply impressed.
I just hope that the singers don't give up on us before attitudes begin to change.
It's also a good thing that ROH is staging Baroque stuff at the Wanamaker Playhouse, may the trend continue! They seem to sell out and there are loads of younger people. Looks like the next generation of opera goers have embraced Baroque. I think the future is bright for countertenors (in fact I fear it's not so bright for trouser mezzos 😉 you would weep to see the dire state of the repertoire for mezzos under 50 (any mezzos in fact, not just trouser mezzos) outside of Baroque, Mozart, Rossini and Papa Strauss).
On the other hand, this post reminded me of that discussion on “men and women singing women and men together” – it's an excellent illustration of how men and women can have musical skills outside of what is usually expected of them. I don't know if you know Theophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin, but it's one of the most interesting books on the subject of gender I have read so far and loosely based on one fabulously adventurous contralto's life (of course!). There are some very astute (and often funny) musings on gender from both the male and the female side (along with lots of of-their-time romantic noodlings).
I have read Mademoiselle de Maupin: I got it from the library several years ago quite by chance and adored it, mainly because of the playful way it riffed on the themes of “As You Like It”. I treated it very much as a novel, though, and never did much reading around the topic – and I can't help but smile at the opening sentence of the Wikipedia entry you link you above: “Julie d'Aubigny (1673–1707), better known as Mademoiselle Maupin or La Maupin, was a 17th-century swordswoman and opera singer.” *Rubs hands with glee* She sounds like my kind of historical figure. A real-life 'uppity woman of the Baroque'! Must reread the novel now and see whether I missed anything with my complete lack of opera knowledge first time round.
Nah, there's nothing about opera in it, sadly. It's loooooooooooosely inspired 😉 I was hoping for some nun body snatching but none of that. Just insightful musings on gender and a lot of fun poking at bright eyed sospiri. It could even work as an anti Sorrows of Young Werther. I have it on my kindle so I occasionally give it a spin.