Saturday, March 2, 2024

Sopranos in opera - male and female

From the late 17th century until the beginning of the classical era, composers and audiences had a strong preference for high voices. Sopranos and altos were dominating operas and other dramatic works. Often these were castratos, but some of their female counterparts also earned quite some fame. No wonder, then, that there are more discs with baroque opera arias by sopranos and altos than by tenors and basses. Three are reviewed here, and it is notable that two of them are by male sopranos, although only one of them specifically manifests himself as such. However, let me start with a 'conventional' soprano.

It is always nice to be able to listen to a singer's debut recording, as it tells much about what he or she is about and has to offer. Jeanine De Bique [1] seems to have been active at the music scene for some time before she was given the opportunity to make a solo recording. She is not a baroque specialist, but as so many opera singers, she was keen to record some Handel arias. However, she "was adamant not to do a Best of Handel Arias for soprano", as the musicologist Yannis François writes in the booklet. Therefore they developed a concept which is summarized in the disc's title: "Mirrors". On the reverse we read: "For her debut album (...) Jeanine De Bique unveils the different reflections of the same female characters of Handel and his contemporaries, as though looking through a broken mirror". It resulted in a programme which includes arias by composers whose operas are little-known, especially Carl Heinrich Graun, Gennaro Manna and Riccardo Broschi, but also gives an interesting insight into the world of 18th-century opera. It is known that some librettos were set by several composers. Interestingly, we find here arias from two operas, called Rodelinda, but Handel and Graun used almost completely different librettos. Equally interesting is that the same aria is not always sung by the same character. Only in one case the same text is performed in two different settings: 'Mi restano le lagrime' from Handel's Alcina and Broschi's L'isola d'Alcina, but whereas in Handel it is Alcina herself that sings it, in Broschi's opera it is given to Morgana. It demonstrates that the connection between text and character in baroque opera was rather loose. I already mentioned Broschi as one of the composers included here whose opera oeuvre is little-known. I did not mention Vinci and Telemann, as their operatic output has received some interest in recent years. That does not mean that it has become familiar, and that makes the inclusion of an aria by each of them most welcome.
Obviously one is curious about what a singer brings to the table in such arias. I have mixed feelings. As is mostly the case, we should not expect a way of singing that comes close to the baroque aesthetic ideals. Jeanine De Bique is a product of a very contemporary style of singing baroque opera. I noted with satisfaction that she takes quite some freedom in the ornamentation department (although I am not sure that they are of her invention - were they written-out by Luca Quintavalle?), but does not exaggerate in that she competely rewrites, as it were, the dacapo sections; the original is still recognizable. I also noted that her performances are differentiated according to what an aria is about; there is no doubt that she has quite some dramatic talent. Unfortunately she uses too much vibrato nearly all the time. That goes especially for the more dramatic stuff, such as the aria fro Graun's Cesare e Cleopatra, which opens the programme. However, there are also much more restrained arias, where she reduces her vibrato, and that makes things so much better. There she shows to be an expressive interpreter. Those are the arias I enjoyed most. She definitely has many possibilities, and it is probably dependent on the people she is working with, which of these are explored. The way the programme has been put together and the inclusion of unknown arias is what makes this disc attractive to opera-lovers, independent of what they think about the way they are performed.

Nicolò Balducci [2] is a singer, who is labelled an alto (the cover says 'countertenor'), but is able to sing in the soprano range. Therefore I marked him as 'male soprano' in my review of his recording debut ("Castrapolis"). His programme was quite interesting in that it included arias by composers one does not often encounter on recital discs, let alone that their operas are recorded at full length. Among them are Giuseppe Porsile and Domenico Natale Sarro (or Sarri). The second disc is a little different: it includes arias by two little-known composers - Riccardo Broschi and Egidio Romualdo Duni - but the largest part of the programme is devoted to Handel and Vivaldi, by far the most popular baroque opera composers of today. In the Handel section we even find some evergreens: 'Lascio ch'io pianga' and 'Ombra mai fu'. The title of his disc nicely sums up what baroque operas are about: love and sadness - often connected. The unknown composers are undoubtedly the most interesting part of the programme. Broschi - who also appears on Jeanine De Bique's disc - is a relatively unknown name, but he was the brother of a famous singer, Carlo Broschi, better known as the castrato Farinelli. The arias performed here may have been sung at first by castratos, and Broschi's aria was even performed by his brother, during a performance of an opera by Johann Adolf Hasse. It attests to the habit of famous singers at the time to include their favourite arias in whatever opera they were singing, whether they fit into the work or not. Vivaldi's operas are regularly performed these days, but single arias have not reached the evergreen status as some of Handel's. Therefore the Vivaldi part of the programme is an interesting section of this disc as well. I would have liked some lesser-known arias by Handel, but I can live with the evergreens performed here, if they are sung as nicely as here by Nicolò Balducci. My positive impressions of his debut are confirmed here. He has what it takes to bring opera arias to life, and I am sure he will do well in complete opera performances too. There are many things to enjoy, such as the freedom in the recitatives and the fact that he does not exaggerate in the addition of ornamentation and cadenzas. He uses a bit too much vibrato to my taste, but it did not spoil my enjoyment. Balducci is a singer to keep an eye on, and I am curious to hear how he is going to develop.

In contrast to Balducci, Samuel Mariño [3] is a real soprano. The booklet tells us that his speaking voice is the same as his singing voice. That sets him apart from those singers who are able to sing well into the soprano range, but through vocal technique. Mariño's recital is also different from most recital discs of his peers in that it focuses on later repertoire: all the pieces are from the classical era, probably with the exception of Christoph Willibald von Gluck's Orfeo, which is not quite classical, but also not baroque, and was an important trailblazer for the classical style in opera. It is Mariño's mentor Barbara Bonney, who stimulated him to explore the music by Mozart and contemporaries. The programme includes arias from Le nozze di Figaro, Il re pastore, La clemenza di Tito and Mitridate. In addition we get arias from two operas by Domenico Cimarosa, who is almost exclusively known for Il matrimonio segreto, and from the only extant opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The latter arias are what makes this disc interesting, although those who have a special liking of Mozart's operas may well be curious to know how arias they know very well, are sung by a male soprano, something that very seldom happens in live performances.
Before I heard this disc I had heard some of Mariño's live performances, and I wondered what the fuss was about. I did not like what I heard, and thought: another soprano who ignores what we know about the aesthetics of the time the music was written. Especially his heavy vibrato and exaggerated ornamentation and cadenzas put me off. Some of that is noticeable here as well, and that is the reason that I don't particularly like this recital. However, it is not as bad as I had expected on the basis of live performances. There is too much vibrato, but it is not as wide as I had heard before, and the whole is not as extravagant as I had feared. Opera lovers may investigate this disc, because of the lesser-known arias, and just to experience the singing of a natural soprano. One can only hope that Mariño is willing to turn to a more 'authentic' way of singing 18th-century opera.

[1] "Mirrors"
Jeanine De Bique, soprano; Concerto Köln/Luca Quintavalle
Berlin Classics 0302017BC (© 2021) details

[2] "Amore Dolore"
Nicolò Balducci, soprano; Baroque Academy Gothenburg Symphony/Dan Laurin
BIS 2645 (© 2023) details

[3] "Samuel Mariño, sopranista"
Samuel Mariño, soprano; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel/Andrea Marcon
Decca 4852943 (© 2022) details