Franco Fagioli: Arias for Caffarelli

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(Wigmore Hall, with Il Pomo d’Oro directed by Riccardo Minasi, 13 November 2015)

It’s just over a year since Franco Fagioli made his solo London debut at the Wigmore, a night which was memorable for several reasons. It was my first Baroque concert, and it also introduced me to a wonderful circle of friends with whom I’ve since travelled to operas and concerts across Europe. When we were in Halle in June we heard a very similar programme to that offered in Fagioli’s second London recital at the Wigmore last Friday, but his great strength as an artist is that he never sings an aria the same way twice. For me, the London concert was more adventurous and more emotionally engaged than the recital in Halle; and, in any case, there were two mouthwatering new additions to the programme: Se bramate d’amar and Crude furie. Franco Fagioli doing Serse? Now this promised to be seriously good fun.

Fagioli was accompanied by a core team from il Pomo d’Oro, headed by the inimitable Riccardo Minasi on lead violin, and they got things underway with a Sonata for strings in G minor by Angelo Ragazzi. This was new to me: an understated opening giving way to an elegant central section, and a third part which shifted from staccato bursts into broad sweeps of melody, set off with delicate little solos by Minasi. The Hall then bristled with anticipation and Fagioli duly made his appearance, getting things underway with Porpora’s Passaggier che su la sponda. He’d started with this in Halle too but here he seemed to be playing across his passaggio a lot more, a transition which sounded smoother than I’d heard before; and he also seemed to leap more quickly into the elaborate coloratura. Right from the start he threw himself into the story behind the aria, this time glancing back and forth with wild eyes like the poor stranded traveller in the opera.

Next up, as in Halle, was Ebbi da te la vita, where Fagioli seamlessly transitioned into the character of self-satisfied villain for the wicked Medarse. The flamboyance was kept strictly under control here and the result was delicate and very pretty. Our next orchestral interlude was equally new to me, I think: Nicola Fiorenza’s Concerto in A for 3 violins and continuo, which offered a welcome luxuriant measure of calm before ramping up the jauntiness (I thought parts of the first section sounded a bit like Vivaldi, but according to my friend I think everything sounds like Vivaldi). There were then two more arias before the interval, which kept to the programme as it was in Halle: first, Leo’s Misero pargoletto.

This isn’t normally an aria which makes me sit to attention, but Fagioli gave the most desperately moving performance of it that I’ve heard, not just vocally but in his physical performance. His entire being was suffused with grief and agitation; those repeated cries of ‘No’ seemed to catch in his throat; and at one point he half-reached out for the child his character is losing. It was far more powerful a rendition than you’d expect from a recital. Halfway through I was struck by the (absurd?) thought that the entire aria was strangely ironic: this tragic vision of fatherhood was originally intended for someone who had no chance of ever having children.

The Hall remained silent for a few seconds after he finished, absorbing it; but we didn’t have all that much time to breathe, because we swept into the closing piece of the first half: my old favourite Fra l’orror della tempesta. It was the perfect uptempo counterbalance to Misero pargoletto, with swirling strings, Il Pomo d’Oro bowling along at high speed, and Fagioli firing on all cylinders from the very first line. Sometimes, indeed, there was so much going on that you didn’t quite know how to process it all.

Let’s take an interval breather for some quick thoughts. Every time I see Minasi in action I admire him more. He’s the perfect match for Fagioli’s style, combining deep sensitivity with panache, and one gets the impression they instinctively bounce off one another. This concert felt a bit like a double act, with Fagioli playing up to the stereotype of the flamboyant primo uomo and Minasi dry, down-to-earth and ironic. On several occasions, as we waited for Fagioli to emerge, Minasi would glance into the audience and raise long-suffering eyebrows; once he mimicked Fagioli having a quick cigarette backstage; and at another point he ostentatiously passed the time admiring the floral decorations on the side of the stage.

And, when Fagioli himself came on for each aria, his own enthusiasm was infectious. You felt that he genuinely loved being up there, and responded to the warm audience by giving us ever more vibrant, vivacious performances. He seemed to be making a real effort to treat every piece differently in the kind of ornamentation he chose, rather than using the predictable low-high sweeps that we heard from him earlier this year. For the most part it worked very well but he sometimes tended towards coloratura so frilly that it ran the risk of obscuring the tune. And it’s true, as Dehggial and I discussed, that his diction still needs a fair bit of work. Some of the professional critics have been grumpy about that in retrospect. But the fact remains that when you see Fagioli live it’s very hard not to be utterly charmed. (I needed to be charmed on Friday: I’d had a pig of a week and had been very cross with people, to whom I apologise.) By the interval I was not only disarmed but captivated. There’s a playfulness to Fagioli, despite the grand gestures: a sense it’s all a game and he can’t quite believe his luck. And he is so dramatically committed to his roles. This matters. Before each aria he switches into the mindset of his character, and he knows the parts inside out. Unlike certain singers, who stare at their music the entire time, he barely looks at his score. He flicks through to keep his place, but he clearly cares about the music so much that he knows it by heart. Especially in the second half, there were long periods where he didn’t even bother looking at the score at all.

That second part began with an elegant interlude: Rendimi più sereno, a track from the Caffarelli CD which we didn’t hear in Halle and which is most notable for its gentle runs up and down the scale. It was ornamented here by judicious little trills and by an extensive cadenza at the end which fluttered across the octaves before being neatly tied up to close. It was a lovely performance, but I must confess ever so slightly overshadowed for me by what was looming on the horizon. Yes, folks. The brat-prince was about to make his entrance. And what an entrance…

Fagioli was enjoying himself and from this point on seems to have decided to stage his arias single-handedly. He gave us the A section of Se bramate d’amar with chin held high and flashing eyes, full of imperious, spiteful pique, pugnaciously squared up to the front of the stage. When he paused at the beginning of the B section, you could see his Serse shrinking back, his spirit failing; until the da capo swept in with a vengeance and he regained his arrogance. With pacy accompaniment from il Pomo d’Oro and plenty of Fagioli’s characteristic ornamentation in the da capo, it was capped by a soaring final note. A tantrum worth waiting for and my favourite aria of the night – or at least my favourite on the programme (here’s a clip of him singing it at Ambronay last year).

We had a chance to recover from that firestorm while Il Pomo d’Oro took over for Angelo Ragazzi’s Sonata for strings in F minor. Somewhat embarrassingly, I heard this in Halle and completely failed to register that the adagio (which I specifically noted that I liked!) is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, in which Ragazzi had played for the first performance. This sonata was published in 1736, the year that Pergolesi died, so perhaps it was a form of tribute. I do feel rather silly for not having spotted it before.

Next up was Lieto così talvolta from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria. We’d heard it in Halle and I’ve also heard it since, sung very beautifully by Erica Eloff. I felt that Fagioli sang it with even greater grace and feeling on Friday than he did in the summer – which probably isn’t that surprising, since he’s recorded the role of Farnaspe in the interim – and there was a lot to love here. Again it was virtually staged, and despite Fagioli’s fondness for vocal decoration he kept most of this very plain, lyrical and meltingly romantic. The result was gorgeous, even better than his performance in Halle. The final cadenzas were a particular highlight, with Fagioli challenging Minasi to echo his ornamentation on the violin, until the latter (perhaps in a nod to the castrato-instrument duels of yore) conceded defeat. Our final instrumental piece was also familiar from Halle: Giuseppe Avritano’s Sonata in D for 3 violins and continuo ‘L’Aragona’. I’d been looking forward to this because I remembered the delicious presto section, and it was just as swift and sweeping as I recalled.

And then we were at the final item: nothing less than the strop to end all strops: Crude furie. It was certainly a firecracker piece; the high sweep of notes at the end was stunning; and I haven’t heard anyone tackle that rapid coloratura quite as easily as Fagioli; but for me it wasn’t quite as successful as Se bramate d’amar had been. While I enjoyed much of the ornamentation, especially the sudden drop into baritone for one of the da capo references to ‘gli orridi abissi’, there was sometimes just a bit too much going on. This was also one case where, for me, diction really did matter: my favourite rendition of this aria is sung almost through the teeth, with the consonants clashing like blades, and some of the definition was lost here. But it was nevertheless a showpiece: a tumultuous, glittering, blazing flash of temper. I do wish Fagioli would do a staged Serse. I’m going to have to cut back on travelling next year, but I’d genuinely go anywhere in Europe to see that.

So. The encores. Our first encore was Dopo notte from Ariodante, which we’d had as an encore in Halle (and you can see a more sedate version from Ambronay here). Fagioli took the time to explain that he was particularly excited to have the chance to sing it here, in the city where it was first performed by Carestini; and he did it delightfully, full of joy and optimism. I know Dehggial is a particular fan of this aria so I advise reading her thoughts on this section. The second encore, though, was unexpected and utterly wonderful – and again, something sung by Carestini rather than Caffarelli. Before saying more, I should explain the background.

Early last week, I cheekily asked Il Pomo d’Oro if we could put in requests for the encores, fully expecting them to politely say no. But they invited me to go ahead and, being the terribly predictable person that I am, I asked for Vo solcando. I got into Baroque six months too late to see Artaserse live, which will be a lifelong regret; and frankly, if you’re going to request something from your favourite opera, why not go for the most mental and dramatic aria? In any case, it was half a joke. No one listens to random people on Twitter, do they? So I was stunned to silence when, after Dopo notte, Fagioli turned to the audience and said playfully, “Do you know Artaserse by Vinci?” It wasn’t to be Vo solcando, alas, which is fair enough: a seven-minute pyrotechnic display after nine other demanding arias might not have done his voice much good. But it was a condensed gallop through Fra cento affanni e cento, one of Arbace’s other splendid arias from the opera, and it was more than I’d ever expected. A little bird tells me that it had been on the shortlist and perhaps my plaintive tweet helped nudge it in the right direction. I do hope that means more Artaserse might be spontaneously thrown into a concert one day.

At the risk of sounding like a breathless schoolgirl, that’ll be the abiding memory of this concert: the pure magic of hearing Fagioli sing at least some of my beloved opera, in London, just a few feet away from me. It was a dream come true.

And we’ll just have to get him to do Vo solcando next year.

Franco Wigmore (4)

Fagioli at the curtain call. Photo via @amanamourspain on Twitter

6 thoughts on “Franco Fagioli: Arias for Caffarelli

  1. dehggial says:

    It's very interesting reading about two shows with very similar playlists as is seeing singers both in staged operas and recitals (and concert peformances) and comparing how they fare/behave in different circumstances. When I started with opera I was a bit reticent towards recitals but it turned out that I had some of the best times at recitals. So until next time then!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Indeed, recitals can be very good fun! I'm only sorry on your behalf that this time we were all being very well behaved and not liable to make idiots of ourselves by, for example, kneeling down and trying to get him in the background of a group photo… 😉 On the other hand I thought the audience's reception was just as warm as it was last year. It irritates me no end when people trot out the same old thing about London 'not liking Baroque' or 'not liking countertenors'. Really? Spend two hours at the Wigmore during a Fagioli concert and then tell me people don't like it. The critics might be grumpy about it, but I strongly suspect they're not paying for their tickets – the success of the concert rests on those who do buy their own tickets, and I thought the general mood was incredibly enthusiastic.

    I forgot to write about the lady sitting next to me, who'd never heard Fagioli sing before. She'd come along because she'd recently been to see that nice Iestyn Davies in “Farinelli and the King” and had been intrigued to hear more countertenors. And she was stunned. In a good way. So happy that the play's doing exactly what I hoped.

  3. dehggial says:

    The lady chose well! Sometimes you forget that people associate opera more with 19th century stuff that sounds nothing like Baroque opera. I was just thinking how much good semi-discovered Baroque opera there is out there, things that the public at large knows nothing about. I'm curious who are the people who think London doesn't like Baroque/countertenors. All the shows I've been to have been very well attended. I read the lukewarm review in the Guardian that focused more on his face-pulling than on his singing or his commitment to music or indeed the public's reaction.

  4. The Idle Woman says:

    Yes, all things considered, the Guardian and Bachtrack were rather pusillanimous about it, which is a surprise considering that I think all the press were very enthusiastic last year and his performance style really hasn't changed that much.

    People who think London doesn't like Baroque or countertenors? Depressingly, Philippe Jaroussky is one of them, although he was extremely charming and apologetic about it. Again I think that's because of a few grumpy reviews. I think the critics were hard on him last time he came, ignoring the fact that his concert was so popular it was sold out months in advance and (according to the live broadcast on Radio 3) provoked rapturous applause.

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