(Konzerthalle Ulrichskirche, Halle, with Il Pomo d’Oro, 7 June 2015)
So, we’d started off the weekend with (arguably) the most famous countertenor in the world and we closed it in dazzling fashion with the most formidably talented: the crown prince of coloratura. In the high-vaulted surroundings of the Ulrichskirche, Halle’s church-turned-concert hall, Franco Fagioli was on fine form as he returned to the programme of his 2013 Caffarelli album. It proved to be a delightful complement to the Porpora recital we saw at the Wigmore back in September and, with orchestral support from the ever-vivacious Il Pomo d’Oro, directed by Riccardo Minasi, it made for a deliciously exuberant evening.
As usual for recitals, we began with an instrumental piece: Sarro’s sinfonia to the 1735 opera Demofoonte (1735), whose lively opening allegro gave way to a majestic central section and finished off with a concluding flare of sparkle. Once the audience was properly warmed up, Fagioli joined Il Pomo d’Oro for his first aria. This actually kept us firmly in Porpora territory: Scitalce’s aria Passaggier che sulla sponda from his 1729/39 opera Semiramide riconosciuta. It’s the old classic: an aria in which the unfortunate traveller in a storm stares helplessly at the sea and at the sky, equally fearing to go or stay. Fagioli started off as he meant to go on, vaulting through his considerable range and plunging mischievously here and there into his lower register.
And, if that gave a taster of his acrobatic ability, the next aria allowed him to display his gentler talents. In Hasse’s 1733 Siroe, the scheming prince Medarse hides his ambition behind a mask of modest self-effacement, and his aria Ebbi da te la vita is a disingenuous protestation of innocence to his suspicious father Cosroe. ‘Desire the throne? Nothing could be further from the truth! You gave me life; if you now give me love, I’ll have all I need.’ Naturally you can’t trust Medarse as far as you could throw him, but taken out of context the aria is gorgeously lyrical. Fagioli effortlessly stretched his high notes, tracing lovely long lines in the music, and left us wilting when he gave up the stage to Il Pomo d’Oro again.
They took over for a Sonata in D Major by Giuseppe Avritano, a composer whom I hadn’t heard of before. I was particularly fond of the second allegro section, where each of the three active violins came in one by one, each gifted its own moment of melody before they joined together; and the final section was a joy: nobody does presto quite like Il Pomo d’Oro. Fagioli then returned for a pair of arias to round off the first half. First was Leo’s Misero pargoletto, an aria for Timante also from Demofoonte. This is a beautiful aria, again very lyrical, but I have to confess it’s never been one of my personal favourites. I just find it a little slow and self-pitying. For all that, Fagioli sang it very well, with a characteristically astute understanding of the psychology behind it. As I said back at the Wigmore, he always inhabits the moment and mood of the aria he’s singing; and we’d see more of that a little later with his encores.
And let’s be honest, Leo didn’t really stand much of a chance because I’d seen what was coming up next, for the final salvo of the first half: the dream team of Fagioli and Vinci. This was Mirteo’s aria In braccio a mille furie from Vinci’s 1729 Semiramide riconosciuta. It’s always been a favourite from the album: it’s all about indignation and honour and injustice and the wrathful soul inspired by the Furies… of course it’s good stuff! This rendition had even more furore than usual: it’s always a good sign when Riccardo Minasi starts bopping around the stage in the background. Fiery and full of braggadocio, with flourishing horns, this was a splendid finale.
We had a brief interval to gather our wits; and then the second half kicked off with two more of my enduring favourites. First up was Farnaspe’s aria Lieto cosi talvolta from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria. This is a real beaut and I’m looking forward to hearing it a couple of times later this year: in person when Erica Eloff sings the role in September, and hopefully on CD if Parnassus do a recording of their planned Pergolesi Adriano with Fagioli himself in the role. The enamoured Farnaspe sings of the joys of love, as expressed by the nightingale whose faithful mate echoes his song and his pain. On the CD the aria opens with an oboe solo but here, fittingly, the oboe was replaced by the elegant simplicity of a violin, which rose and fell throughout. Minasi did a beautiful job of echoing Fagioli’s voice, while Fagioli himself finished off with a suitably nightingale-style warble at the end.
Had this been a less favoured piece of mine, I might well have become distracted again, because it was closely followed by another of my beloved swagger arias. This was Fra l’orror della tempesta and it took us back to Hasse’s duplictious Medarse, who gleefully watches everything falling apart around him – his brother and father at loggerheads – and quietly smiles to himself. ‘In the midst of the storm,’ he confides in a rather Iago-esque soliloquy, ‘as the sky blots out the stars, a ray of hope begins to shine in the darkness for me.’ There are two versions of this aria, one which featured on the Caffarelli CD and which was chosen for this recital; and a version from the rewritten Siroe of 1763, which features on the opera recording from last year. They’re both fabulous, but I confess to a sneaking slight preference for the latter on the basis that it’s even bigger, better and more mental. Nevertheless, the 1733 version ticked more than enough boxes here: we were on the home straight; the orchestra and Fagioli were beginning to relax and enjoy themselves; they were pushing up the flounce in the music; and Fagioli was beginning to throw in some of his signature crazy ornamentation.
We had a temporary break from Caffarelli while Il Pomo d’Oro returned to centre stage for the Sonata in F Minor by Angelo Ragazzi. Like Avritano he’s another composer I don’t know at all. That’s why these recitals are so intriguing: you end up coming across lots of goodies in the instrumental sections alongside the favourite arias. And this Ragazzi piece turned out to be really lovely, with the violins underlaid by a rising, haunting melody from the cello. It was followed by another moment of relative downtime, as Fagioli returned to sing the aria Gonfio tu vedi il fiume, from Pasquale Cafaro’s 1761 opera Ipermestra. This was apparently released at about the same time as Caffarelli, as an extra; but, since I don’t have iTunes or Spotify, I had never heard it before. The gentle A section was full of soft strings, perhaps suggesting wind, rain or, more likely the flowing of a river; while the B section swept on with greater pace. It was elegant but not, for me, one of the most memorable pieces of the evening (I probably just need to listen to it a few more times).
Still, I was glad to have a couple of quieter pieces, because we then moved onto the final instrumental section and this was sheer glittering melodrama. It was Leo’s overture to his 1727 opera Il ciro riconosciuto and, although I haven’t heard much of Leo beyond the arias Handel snaffled for his pasticcio of Catone, this firework display merely convinced me that I need to listen to more. The martial drama of the opening part was succeeded in the third and final section by a cheerful whirling melody that got my foot tapping under the chair. And so I was all psyched up ready for the final piece on the programme: Quinto Fabio’s Odo il suono di tromba guerriera from Gennaro Manna’s 1749 opera Lucio Papirio. This fulfils all my criteria for a jolly good aria: swagger, sprezzatura and plenty of horns. Fagioli pulled out all the stops on his ornamentation and was clearly having a whale of a time, making faces at the orchestra, and occasionally swinging around ostentatiously to check that the trumpets were still there.
Naturally there were encores. The atmosphere fell halfway between opera and rock concert, and I must give kudos to the gentleman across the aisle from me who managed to choose a moment of complete silence to bellow out ‘Fantastico!’ at which everyone laughed. The first encore was Dopo notte from Ariodante, which is the light-hearted, optimistic twin of Scherza infida (which Fagioli performed so memorably in Ambronay). Once again he was physically as well as vocally exuberant, dancing along to the introduction and turning in a dazzlingly ornamental da capo section, with a fabulous cadenza to round things off. His second encore was a track from the album, this time Sarro’s aria Un cor che ben ama from the opera Valdemaro. This aria hadn’t caught my attention very much in the past, and I don’t know why, because it features a vocal duel with a trumpet. That’s precisely the kind of thing that leaves me gurgling with delight and, indeed, did here in Halle. What better end to a Baroque weekend could one desire?
Some thoughts to conclude. It was interesting to have the two recitals by Jaroussky and Fagioli to ‘bookend’ the weekend. They offered some telling contrasts: not only vocally, which I’d expected, but also in performance style and structuring, which are aspects I hadn’t really thought about before. Vocally, of course, it’s hard to imagine two more different singers. Fagioli excels at just the kind of exuberantly swaggering aria that challenges Jaroussky; and his recital programme reflected that: all three of the Caffarelli CD’s bombastic sparklers were wheeled out for display.
But what really struck me was the contrast in presentation. Having been so impressed by Jaroussky’s understated performance just a few days before, I really noticed that Fagioli made a point of going off after each aria and returning on a wave of applause to sing the next one. He can get away with it because he’s such a flamboyantly theatrical singer, and because you get the feeling that the concert itself is an almost semi-staged kind of performance, with its elegant Baroque gestures and immensely appealing impish sense of humour. But it did interrupt the flow, especially because Fagioli even left the stage between two consecutive arias. It prevented the recital from having the sense of organic fluidity that we saw on Thursday: here the concert felt like what it was: an unconnected series of top-ten hits, each of which demanded and expected its own enthusiastic applause. I have no conclusions to draw from this as such. It’s simply an observation of the way two very different singers handle their different repertoire.
As a confirmed devote of Xerxes (you may have noticed?) I had been hoping we might get either Se bramate d’amar or Crude furie, but it wasn’t the day for those. However, Fagioli will be coming to the Wigmore Hall in November with this programme (I’ve already got my ticket) and I know that he’s sung some Serse in Caffarelli concerts in the past. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that being a stone’s throw from the Haymarket might inspire him to give our favourite brat-prince an outing. I’ll get ready to drum my feet on the floor in appreciation.
And thus my Halle chapter has come to its end. It was a wonderful long weekend and I had the great pleasure of spending it with friends who love this music as much as I do. I hope it’ll be just the first of many opera-festival reunions. The next Baroque trip on my schedule is already looming on the horizon: Versailles, in just over a week, to see Fagioli and Il Pomo d’Oro once again in Vinci’s Catone in Utica. The music and singing, at least, will be worth the wait.