BROSCHI, PORPORA & HANDEL: “Farinelli – A Portrait – Live in Bergen” – Anne Hallenberg/ Les Talens Lyriques/ Christophe Rousset – Aparte

BROSCHI, PORPORA & HANDEL: “Farinelli – A Portrait – Live in Bergen” – Anne Hallenberg/ Les Talens Lyriques/ Christophe Rousset – Aparte 117, 79:40 (2/17/17) ****:

Most famous arias of the legendary castrato Farinelli sung by fine mezzo-soprano with two Handel arias as encores.

Carlo Broschi, known to posterity as Farinelli, was a late and certainly the most illustrious castrato of the 18th century. His career was ably chronicled by Charles Burney, whose writings on the musical culture of his time are the equivalent of our New York Times’ Arts section. According to Burney, Farinelli’s debut was a mythical moment, the arrival of a god on a cloud of artistic conquest. Rome, 1722, was the setting for a memorable contest in which the “power of his lungs” bested the virtuosity of a reputed trumpet player while a partisan audience swooned in acclamation. From this moment, the career of Farinelli was launched. Conquests of all the operatic centers of Italy ensued. Foreign capitals beckoned as well; first Vienna, and then the musical capital of the world, London. Burney described the wonder of his reception: “The band did not follow him, but were all gaping with wonder, as if thunder struck…unable to keep pace with him, having not only been disabled by astonishment, but overpowered by his talents…”

Unlike the celebrities of today, whose shelf-life can be as brief as four minutes, Farinelli had a long and productive career. During this time, he was not only the darling of audiences but also the object of much attention by composers. The disc under review here features a representative sample of the major figures who wrote specifically for Farinelli. Given the scarcity of castrati nowadays, it is typical for these parts to be sung by a counter-tenor. However, Christophe Rousset and his extremely well-appointed Les Talens Lyriques have given the role to Swedish mezzo-soprano, Ann Hallenberg, a well-known artist who has performed many lead roles with just about all of the leading directors and ensembles.

The recording comes from a live festival in Bergen, although the audience has been edited out. One wonders how any mortal would have been capable of 80 minutes of such demanding singing, but apparently it all comes from one show. We are left to guess how much was cleaned up after the event, for the recording is flawless in all respects, devoid even of some ragged detail that would bring a welcome indication of effort.

One worries that the legend of Farinelli could work mischief on the performance by overstating the dramatic and exhibitionistic dimension of the music. His famous swell “by which he surpassed all other singers (Burney),” which employed an “artificial economy of breath allowing him to protract to such a length as to excite incredulity even in those who had heard him” is something we would not mind witnessing, but would rather not “be subdued by,” to use Burney’s expression. One might also inquire whether such a recital might involve an immoderate and taxing exposure to warbling pyrotechnics. Nor do the texts—replete with cruel fates, throbbing hearts, vengeful deities—promise to deliver much in the way of artistic substance.

Happily, the concert delivers handsomely. Ann Hallenberg is perfect as Farinelli, confident and virtuosic, but refusing to uncover that mythological weapon, the famous messa di voce, or swell.

Frankly, I was a little exhausted after the vehemence of Broschi’s Son qual nave ch’agitata. But there was much to admire in the spirit of the playing and the amber warmth of Ms. Hallenberg’s voice. The following two tracks at walking tempo show just how spectacular these parts are, both technically and expressively. Meanwhile, one has nothing but admiration for the vivid and beautiful playing of the ensemble. Nicola Porpora is the composer perhaps best known for testing the limits of the legendary singer.  He is well represented on two tracks from the opera Semiramide and one from Polifemo. Leonardo Leo’s Cervo in Bosco takes us well into the realm of excess and tests the upper range of our singer. Yet it has the theatrical aplomb of the Queen of the Night Aria, to which it can be fairly compared.

It is significant that two arias from Handel, who never wrote anything for Farinelli, follow. These encores are highlights of the concert and will be familiar to many listeners. The show ends with a real dust-up Porpora’s In braccio a mille furie. (In the arms of a thousand furies) We have the usual trouble with torments, outrages and unavenged honor, none of which we take at all seriously, as Ms. Hallenberg sails above the storm with her stupendous instrument.

Withal, a rewarding display of vocal athletics wed to an thoughtful presentation of the most dramatic operatic material connected to the Farinelli legend.

TrackList: Broshi; Son Quale nave, Ombra fedele; Giacomelli; Gia presso al termine; Porpora Si Pietoso, Alto Giove; Giacomelli Passagier che incerto; Hasse; Ouverture; Leo; Che legge spietata, Cervo in Bosco; Handel; Sta nell’ircana, Lascia ch’io pianga; Porpora; In braccio mille furie

—Fritz Balwit

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