“If countertenors can sing Handel, why not Rossini? Among the many fine singers Rossini heard during his student days in Bologna, two were especially important: the castrato Giovan Battista Velluti and the young Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. Hearing both on the same stage must have been an astonishing experience: the old order of the castrati, doomed to extinction, side by side with the new order of singing actresses whose brilliantly developed coloratura techniques were in some sense a bequest from the castrati. Purity of tone, flexibility of technique and a 'profoundly penetrating accent' were what most impressed Rossini about the castrati. It was a different sound from that of the modern countertenor but the stylistic principles are not a hundred miles removed.
The singing of Viennese countertenor Max Emmanuel Cencic is distinguished by good rhythm, crisp divisions and clear, expressive word use. The range these roles require sits comfortably on his voice. The G below the stave is rounded and full, the two octaves beyond are clear and bright, albeit with a marked vibrato in places. Cencic's musicianship is generally impeccable: a tribute to the values instilled in him during his time in the Vienna Boys' Choir which he left in 1992, nine years before his decision to 're-create' himself as a countertenor.
Rossini created one operatic role for Velluti, in Aureliano in Palmira. Having antagonised the company with his self-regarding antics, Velluti is said to have made next to no impact onstage.
Cencic does not disappoint in the opera's celebrated pastoral plaint or in Tancredi's cabaletta 'Di tanti palpiti'. However, it is the scene from Act 2 of Semiramide which provides the recital's high-point. Hamlet-like, Arsace recognises his mother's guilt (in an expressive transition finely realised by Cencic) alongside his duty to avenge his father's death, as music familiar from the overture anticipates the crises to come.
With three overtures, Cencic's contributions add up to just 49 minutes. Short measure, you might think, but more than enough to give one a sense of what a talented countertenor can bring to Rossini.”