Last season the Royal Opera House broke with modern convention and cast a young male singer in the role of Idamante in a production of Idomeneo, which proved to be controversial for a whole host of other reasons, not least the appearance of a Damien Hirst-like pickled shark. If I had the funds, I would send every critic who reviewed Franco Fagioli‘s performance in such negative terms to hear his Cesare in the production of Vinci’s Catone in Utica which I was privileged to hear at the Versailles Festival last night. This first modern rendition of Vinci’s take on Metastasio’s great libretto is a co-production between the Opera Royal/Chateau de Versailles Spectacles and the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden. As was appropriate for an opera composed for a Roman premiere in 1728, this modern performance at the behest of Max Emanuel Cencic was given by an entirely male cast, including the roles of Cato’s daughter and Pompey’s widow.
Why are we so biased against young men who can sing high? I hear that one Intendant (who should know better) muttered at an Idomeneo performance that men who can sing that high should only do so behind closed doors. Other listeners felt you couldn’t hear clearly what Mr Fagioli was singing. I would counter this by asking when was the last time you heard every word a soprano singing above C uttered? His words are subject to a certain amount of distortion right at the top of the range, but, like a stratospheric soprano, it is the vowels which lack differentiation. There is nowt wrong with thy Italian consonants, Mr Fagioli.
Most opera seria nuts familiar with the international phenomenon of 18th century operatic castrati will have seen the famous Hogarth cartoon of Senesino and Caffarelli. In the costumes designed by Markus Meyer for the Vinci, Mr Fagioli was dressed and presented to us as if he had stepped out of that cartoon or a colourful Longhi painting of 18th century Venice. What happens each time I hear Mr Fagioli sing his first notes is that, for about 45 seconds, I reel at its unexpected sound. It’s akin to your very first sip of Laphroig. You initially think, “Do I really like this,” before realising it is amazing and you are a fan for life. When I first heard Mr Fagioli sing Arbace in Artaserse in Paris in 2012, I thought it was an incredible fusion of three different voices in one. The most recognisable is the Cecilia Bartoli type chest voice, but this young man offers us a 3-octave compass with unforced top notes – a phenomenon I never thought I would hear in my lifetime. Idamante was eminently possible for him, but did tend to stay very much in his soprano register, which is serviceable but not stunning on its own. What the London critics chose to overlook is just how remarkable it is that (a) the fact he can sing in that lofty register at all and (b) the chance he gives the audience to see a heroic, swashbuckling male singer playing that role instead of a female singer in breeches.
With Mr Fagioli cast as Cesare, the audience not only benefitted from the unique sound-world of multiple colours Mr Fagioli produces in the different parts of his range, but also the very-much-larger-than-life characterisation of Rome’s first emperor which must have been written especially for a preening castrato. Rarely in the UK do we get to hear a countertenor able to perform with such commitment, such consistently focused tone, such phenomenal trills and, best of all, such incredible musical artistry. I find it hard to believe anyone could produce this quality of sound and this variety of dynamics as a naturally baritone voice using falsetto. Mr Fagioli is a phenomenon indeed, hugely talented, a sensitive musician and a quite extraordinary dramatic performer. Long may he reign.
Clearly passing the baton to him as primo upmost on this occasion was the unique countertenor and former sopranist, Max Emanuel Cencic, who last year made his directorial debut with a much-overdue revival of Hasse’s Siroe. If you haven’t heard the recording of this opera, also featuring Mr Fagioli, buy it now on the basis of the quality of music alone. Today Mr Cencic is perhaps more of an entrepreneur than a primo uomo and a very successful one at that if you examine his recent record of revivals, recordings and ability as a casting director. His recognition of Fagioli’s ability and his promotion of him was way ahead of the game. In Catone he took on the role of Arbace, the Numidian prince who woos Cato’s daughter and finds Cesare is his rival in love. As ever, Mr Cencic’s own arias were beautifully executed, his compelling stage presence undiminished, every note and every ornament wonderfully focused and well supported. When he rises to the top of his current range the vibrato gets faster and the intensity rises. I wish he would still take risks and just sometimes step outside his comfort zone. Nevertheless I cannot fault his singing for its consistent beauty of sound, nor the musicianship, which seeps from every pore.
In place of Jaroussky who was part of he team in 2012, we now have Vince Yi. To his credit, this young male soprano can rise above a sizeable orchestra at the top of his range, to judge by his recent appearances at English National Opera. He also did rather well in drag, flouncing about the stage and convincingly flirting with Fulvio (as any red-blooded woman would have done.) However, I find I missed Jaroussky’s sound. Men who set out to sing soprano roles do have this tendency to sound like overgrown boy trebles. Jaroussky transcends this somehow with an ability to produce a more interesting sound than the average treble. Mr Yi for me falls into the boy treble category.
Valer Sabbadus was scheduled to sing in Paris, but had to withdraw through illness. He has a light but feminine voice with the softness of a young girl rather than boy treble. His replacement was Ray Chenez and for me was one of the night’s two revelations. Mr Chenez looks better than me in a dress (“not saying much” I hear you mutter,) his execution of every line of recitative was perfect, full of drama and emotion and his arias, particularly the later ones, were really exciting to hear. This is a young man with what amounts to a dramatic soprano voice which oozes potential. The more experience he gets, the greater his confidence will grow. I have to say his ability to project his voice was significantly greater than that of Valer Sabadus and it was a particular pleasure to hear him hold his own in a vocal quartet.
The tenor, Juan Sancho sang with barely concealed fury – at Rome and its lily-livered senators and at his thankless daughter who is in love with the enemy. He is also cornering the market in baroque death scenes, his suicide in this case subtly symbolised by a red ribbon emanating from his wound. The other revelation of the night was the role of Fulvio, so sadly cut from Handel’s pasticcio, which was sung by the Tyrolean tenor, Martin Mitterrutzner. This young man is currently a member of the Frankfurt Opera ensemble. Not only does he have heroic good looks, he has a beautiful Italianate bloom to his voice. I sincerely hope to hear (as well as see) more from him.
The indefatigable Martin Minasi led Il Pomo d’Oro from the violin, gently enabling his star singers to give their all and guiding the younger ones, offering ideal support to all as well as leading his lively band with customary verve. The key for me of a baroque production is that it highlights the themes of the opera rather than distracting or obfuscating. I also don’t think that any sort of realism is appropriate in an era when the fact that Cesare was depicted escaping from Utica via the sewer was sufficiently offensive to prompt a rewrite from Metastasio. Cencic’s first foray into production with Hasse’s Siroe was an absolute delight, transporting us into a Persian or Assyrian palace, full of hints of violence, whips cracked on the floor rather than mimed flogging. His chosen director for Catone, Jakob Peters-Messer strayed from time to time into the symbols familiar from Regietheater. I still don’t know why the man with the parrot’s head was standing looking up at a flying fish skeleton during an aria, but the young male dancers whose headgear varied from galleons to Greek masks to topiary, despite reminding me naughtily of The Village People, added sufficient movement and stage business to allow the singers to deliver their coloratura unimpeded, without forcing them to crawl on their stomachs or juggle oranges at the same time. Probably the best stage business of the night came from Vince Yi and Martin Mitterrutzner discreetly making out behind a small scale model of the Coliseum. The comic timing of a scattering of feathers from Mr Yi’s magnificent collar was damn near perfect – a nice metaphor for what was for this audience member a perfect evening.
Photos: Martina Pipprich