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 Recording of the Week  Arias for countertenor/male soprano from Fagioli, Hansen, and Jaroussky

I think I was about ninety seconds into Franco Fagioli’s ‘Arias for Caffarelli’ when I decided that it was one of my records of the year: tearing into a virtuosic aria from Hasse’s Siroe, the Argentinian high countertenor’s laser-beam top notes and prodigious agility had us all gawping at one another in disbelief when we first played it in the Presto office!

Franco Fagioli
Franco Fagioli

Born Gaetano Majorano in 1710, Caffarelli (like most star castrati he was known by a stage-name) was as renowned for his divaish behaviour as for his almost superhuman vocal skills – promiscuous and hugely extravagant, he wasn’t above upstaging his colleagues by sauntering off-stage whilst they were singing or even paying lackeys to blow snuff into the air during his rivals’ big arias! But when he wasn’t getting arrested or doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of trashing hotel-suites, he inspired some of the most breathtaking music of the Italian baroque, as this superb collection bears out.

Most of the arias receive their first outing on disc here. There are relatively few recordings of Caffarelli’s repertoire from female sopranos, and hardly any modern (ie ‘intact’!) male singers have dared to tackle this fiendishly high-lying music (even by castrato standards, Caffarelli seems to have had a remarkable upper extension). Fagioli takes it all in his stride with infectious brio: gleaming high As and Bs abound (not just those touched briefly in runs, but also sustained with real beauty of tone!), and the blazing martial aria by Gennaro Manna which closes the disc is capped with a stupendous top D! Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Fagioli’s singing, though – and something which I’ve never heard from any other exponent of this type of music – is his use of a robust chest-voice that descends well into baritone register: he displays a full three-octave range on the disc, dipping down nearly an octave below middle C. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in countertenor territory anymore.

Dazzled as I was by the vocal pyrotechnics, I couldn’t fail to notice the scintillating playing of Il Pomo d’Oro: sample the delightfully raucous natural horns in that opening track, or any one of the various beautifully shaped obbligatos.

David Hansen
David Hansen

You wait three hundred years for a male soprano and three come along at once: a few weeks ago Deutsche Harmonia Mundi brought us ‘Rivals’ from David Hansen, a glamorous young Australian sopranist (or, as his eponymous website describes it, ‘guy who sings high’). It’s an intelligently planned recital of arias from operas which pitted two rival castrati against one another (rather as this review has ended up doing, though personally I wouldn’t be without either disc!).

Hansen matches Fagioli for speed and clarity in Vinci's ‘In braccio a mille furie’ (which appears on both discs) and also showcases a stonking top D in a fabulous extended version of the well-known ‘Son qual nave’, but he avoids those very low reaches in which Fagioli revels. The basic sound is worlds away from Fagioli’s: pure, sweet and not dissimilar to Philippe Jaroussky, though he’s still very much his own man!

In fact, Jaroussky himself has also contributed to making September The Month of the Castrato with a programme of arias by Nicola Porpora, the great Neapolitan singing tutor who endowed Farinelli, Caffarelli and countless others with the technique which took Europe by storm. Jaroussky may not yet scale the extravagant heights of the other two singers, but there are signs that he too is exploring more extreme vocal techniques: an excursion into ‘man-voice’ here, a stratospheric flourish there. There’s a lovely cameo from his frequent sparring-partner Cecilia Bartoli, too.

I’m still not quite sure how they do it, but I can’t wait to see where this new generation of male soprani will go next – for the minute, though, I’m happy to revel in the resurrection of a voice-type and repertoire that I never thought would be set down on disc!

Arias for Caffarelli

Franco Fagioli (countertenor), Il Pomo d’Oro, Riccardo Minasi

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Rivals: Arias for Farinelli & Co.

David Hansen (countertenor), Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Porpora: Farinelli Arias

Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor), Venice Baroque Orchestra, Andrea Marcon

Available Formats: MP3, CD Quality FLAC