Battling your way through torrential rain on a Friday night to endure no less than five hours on one of the most uncomfortable church pews in London with no refreshments provided and inadequate provision of lavatories may not sound like your idea of fun, but Ensemble Serse’s first performance of Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio since 1733 was one of the best events in this year’s London Handel Festival.

It is time the operatic world collectively began to appreciate the extraordinary contribution the South African male soprano, Calvin Wells is making to the restoration of neglected operas from the height of Italian opera seria. Not only has Wells spent more than a year (in collaboration with the leader of Ensemble Serse, Oliver Webber, a respected baroque violinist,) recreating performance materials from the manuscript of Johan Adolf Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio; he also offers London audiences a rare and exhilarating insight into what a soprano castrato may actually have sounded like.

Castrati ruled the operatic world in the 18th century. Today the alto tessitura counter-tenors are developing exponentially but, just as fine tenors are a rarer breed than baritones, male soprano voices of real quality and power and, dare I say it, masculinity are almost an anomaly.  Gaetano Majorano, known as ‘Caffarelli’ was an extraordinary character, who allegedly elected at age 8 to be castrated – obviously not an option for those who wish to recreate the male soprano voice today!  Caffarelli did not have great success in London as he followed too closely on the heels of Farinelli.  However Handel did create the role of Xerxes for him; the role of Pirro was written for him by Hasse. Caffarelli had a range of two octaves from middle C up to top C.  Coincidentally this matches the tessitura which Michael Maniaci lays claim to and he is probably my male soprano of choice today.  Other contenders are Jaroussky, Laszkowski, Ryabets and Marian, but only Calvin Wells and Maniaci come close to my idea of what a soprano castrato might have sounded like.

Calvin Wells’ voice and technique may not be to everyone’s taste.  He does have quite a fast and dominant vibrato, but in this performance he also revealed excellent, controlled mezza voce in what are known as the ‘pathetic arias.’ On the other hand, what Mr Wells’ core audience now comes to hear (and it was a very good house on Friday) is the thrilling experience of hearing this extraordinary performer in full flight.  He hit all his unfeasibly high notes in the da capo arias bang on in Friday’s performance. Marian, of whose singing my partner memorably said was like listening to a voice through the wrong end of a telescope, disappointed.  By contrast, Mr Wells on form, as he was in Cajo, offers an exhilarating recreation of what I believe a high-voiced castrato might have sounded like. There has to be something sexy, masculine and thrilling about a man portraying a passionate, powerful tyrant.  Just once or twice Mr Wells tended to be slightly sharp in his enthusiasm, but in my opinion he has improved significantly since last year; finally he has found sufficient self-belief to make the seemingly impossible possible. His performance of ‘Non ha più pace l’amor geloso’ in particular raised well-deserved cheers from the audience.

Mr Wells and his colleagues in Ensemble Serse deserve just as hearty an accolade for the extraordinary amount of work which they have invested in making a performance of this unjustly neglected work possible. Hasse wrote the opera for the Capranica theatre in Rome, a prestigious venue which also hosted the premieres of operas by Vivaldi, Porpora, Vinci, Galuppi, Caldara and Leo.  Unbelievably Hasse cast no less than six castrati in Cajo. (I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall backstage.) The librettist of this otherwise archetypal opera seria on the themes of conflict, sexual rivalry and a tyrant’s abuse of his power was surprisingly not Metastasio, but Apostolo Zeno (1669-1750,) a Venetian nobleman of Greek descent who was Metastasio’s predecessor as court poet in Vienna.  This is a good pairing as both composer and poet are renowned for bringing classical principles to the genre.

The music in this opera is of consistently high quality.  There is a lot of recitative, mostly accompanied by continuo.  According to scholarly research, Handel, the composer who brought Italian opera seria to London, began latterly to cut recitative for his English audience who would struggle to understand large swathes of Italian text.  Besides, they probably only came to hear the vocal fireworks generated by the duelling castrati or battling soprani.  In this case of course this opera was premiered in Rome before Italians; the overall effect of the sparkling da capo arias with their vocal histrionics would surely have been amplified by the fact that they tend to end a scene after a building of tension in the passages of recitative.  Apart from the occasional use of the string section to accompany a particularly solemn or poignant recitative, another variation from the standard form which I noted was the addition of a vocal cadenza, usually at the end of the ‘A’ section. This was either sung a cappella or was sometimes in the form of an elaborate counterpoint with a solo violin. Twice the warrior, Volusio is accompanied by a pair of bravura horns, vying with him in his posturing.  Without wishing to make a pun, this is truly a classic of the classical opera genre and deserves to be staged again. In its day it was heard in Mantua, Urbino, Dresden, Venice, Salzburg, Bologna, Naples; in fact pretty much throughout the civilized world.

So, how did Mr Wells solve the problem of six castrati?  The role of Cajo, was accorded to Daniel Wellings. Cajo is the Roman consul, sent to Pirro, King of Epirus, who has supported the Tarentini of southern Italy in a successful insurrection against the Romans. He is the father of Sestia, with whom Pirro unfortunately falls in love, despite the fact that he is pledged to Bircenna, Princess of Ilyria and Sestia herself is betrothed to the Roman warrior, Volusio.  Mr Wellings is not a familiar counter-tenor in the early music world, despite having been a Cambridge choral scholar and having sung in his youth with the likes of Emma Kirkby and Michael George.  Apparently he has taken a break from professional singer while building a career in the city and the role of Cajo marked his return to the stage.  He has a well-focused and balanced voice which is strong enough to be heard in duet with the more operatic voices of the male and female soprani.  I thought his singing of recitative and use of the Italian words was excellent, but his rendition of arias was a little disappointing and lacking in the consistent vocal technique. Still it was a pretty good showing for someone who is performance-rusty.

Turio, Governor of Taranto and the other role written for alto castrato was sung by Joseph Bolger.  I felt Mr Bolger’s voice and performance was about as different from Mr Wellings as you could get.  Mr Bolger is currently studying at the WCMD on the postgraduate opera course. His voice is flexible, his pitch excellent, his arias quite stylish, but sadly in comparison with the phalanx of soprani, he is significantly underpowered. His recitative in particular was difficult to hear clearly further back than the third row.

Edmund Hastings as Cinea, Pirro’s confidant, must have felt outnumbered at times as the only ‘full-blooded’ male in the cast.  This is another Oxbridge choral scholar made good. He is on the RAM postgraduate course but making headway already with minor opera groups and in oratorio.  I don’t know if he has applied for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, but I preferred the quality of his voice to those of the tenors I have heard on that scheme recently. Again his recitative was spotless and he made the most of the Italian text.  I’d like to hear him singing the arias with just a little more confidence and bravura, which I think he has the technique to do.

Catherine Pope undertook the role of Bircenna, the wronged fiancée of Pirro. Ms Pope is a quietly confident and experienced singer of baroque and classical music. I liked her vocal quality very much and felt she played Bircenna with great pathos, despite apparently suffering from either a cold or hayfever.

The lyric mezzo Sylvie Bedouelle  played Sestia’s lover, Volusio with all the aplomb of a principal boy.  She has it all: a stage presence, acting ability, a lovely flexible voice and a wide range of repertoire from Monteverdi to pop music. This is a soprano who is going places.

Last and by no means least was Elisabeth Fleming as Sestia.  This talented mezzo is a real polymath in that she runs English Voices, was official language coach at the Salzburg Festival and sings early music as far afield as Beijing. Later this year she will be making her debut at the Berlin Staatsoper in Cavalieri. While Ms Rogers is versatile, Ms Fleming is very much an early music specialist who has found her niche in the world of Gluck, Handel, Bach and Monteverdi. Like Pirro, her character loses the plot at one point in the opera when her passion causes temporary insanity. For many I suspect Ms Fleming’s portrayal of Sestia was the standout performance of the evening. In the gladiatorial competition between the soprano castrati, my scoreboard reads 1 game all to Mr Wells and Ms Fleming.

3 stars

Miranda Jackson

Opera Britannia