I have a confession to make. I am a Cencic groupie. Long before I knew I would be asked to review last night’s performance of Tamerlano at the Barbican, I had planned to go. Max Emanuel Cencic was a soloist in the Vienna Boys’ Choir before launching a career as an adult male soprano, modified a decade later to a blazing international career as a countertenor. Even for countertenors who focus on Italian Baroque roles for castrati, the opportunities to sing in the main houses of Europe are few and far between, until said houses make the shift from casting women in castrati roles. Mr Cencic has instead invested a lot of his drive and talent and set up Parnassus Arts Productions, an organization responsible for resurrecting and staging operas such as Vinci’s Artaserse, Hasse’s Siroe and Vinci’s Catone in Utica.
Last night’s performance was the first appearance at the Barbican of Il Pomo d’Oro, who have previously been heard at Wigmore Hall under the skilled direction of violinist Riccardo Minasi. Mr Minasi was director on the CD recording of Tamerlano, as well as on recent recordings of Venetian arias by Mr Cencic and on the CD Bad Guys by last night’s Tamerlano, Xavier Sabata. The conductor of Il Pomo d’Oro at the Barbican performance was the young Russian conductor and harpsichordist Maxim Emelyanychev, who features on Mr Cencic’s latest CD release, Arie Napoletane.
The complicated plot of Tamerlano revolves around the imprisoned Sultan Bazajet, captured by Tamerlano, ruler of the Tartars. Tamerlano is betrothed to Princess Irene, whom he has never seen, but falls for Asteria, daughter of Bazajet. In keeping with opera seria tradition, Tamerlano has a sidekick who is a Greek prince called Andronico. Andronico and Asteria are in love. As usual, Asteria is a mere pawn in the battle of wills between Tamerlano and her father Bazajet. If she marries Tamerlano, her father will be spared but Andronico, Asteria and Bazajet would rather die than accede to Tamerlano’s demands. Irene effects a reprieve for Asteria and Andronico, but Bazajet takes his own life, swearing revenge upon Tamerlano.
Mr Sabata recently recorded an album of Handelian villains. We can all think of arias for countertenor which are lovestruck, mournful, pathetic, flashy even, but I can’t think of a previous occasion on which I heard a countertenor sing with such convincing anger and petulance as Mr Sabata did in the role of Tamerlano. This was no mean feat. Most countertenor voices have a soft mellowness about them, as does Mr Sabata’s in passages of line-and-length singing. As Tamerlano, Mr Sabata rolled his Italian ‘r’s with a vengeance, and pushing his already well-focused sound with admirable diaphragm power, he was a positively fierce and intimidating tyrant. I recommend listening to him sing ‘Da un breve riposo” from Alessandro on YouTube to get some idea of how he maintains the integrity of his coloratura despite pushing every note in anger.
John Mark Ainsley as Bazajet matched him extremely well. It is usually the wronged ruler who gets to sing all the rage arias. Mr Ainsley is a highly intelligent singer, moving with ease between the challenges of contemporary music and heart-rending early music roles such as Orfeo. There were moments in this performance where I would have loved a little more Italianate bloom to the voice. However, all Mr Ainsley’s coloratura was perfectly executed and he also gets full marks for his interpretation of one of the most noble and moving on-stage deaths in the canon.
Irene has a sidekick called Leone, who isn’t even mentioned in the plot synopsis and is no doubt cut from many modern performances of Tamerlano. (Apparently the role was expanded in the 1731 revival.) I am glad he was not cut from this production as he was played by the superb Russian bass, Pavel Kudinov. Mr Kudinov has a superbly dark, resonant voice which is as at home in Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich as it is in Handel. What a pleasure to hear a truly operatic voice which still has the flexibility to negotiate difficult passagework as well as resonating on the lower note in the intervallic section of ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’
One of the evening’s revelations for me was the Italian mezzo, Romina Basso. She has featured on a Baroque Divas recording with Sonia Prina and Vivica Genaux and last year released Lamento as her first solo album. For some reason Prina and Genaux have established a greater media presence – though none so great as Joyce DiDonato, with whom I would very favourably compare Ms Basso. She has a warm, well-focused mezzo and a highly engaging acting style. A beautiful Italian woman such as Sophia Loren manages to dominate men and get what she wants without shedding an ounce of femininity and elegance. Such was Ms Basso’s portrayal of Irene. Of course her use and delivery of the Italian text was par excellence. The aria ‘Crudel più non son io’ was particularly memorable.
I admired Julia Lezhneva’s performance in Hasse’s Siroe, where it became clear she is able to deliver unfeasibly high soprano coloratura with consummate ease. She had two such arias in this performance as Asteria, which were delivered with her customary aplomb, although the conductor did allow her to rush ahead of the orchestra in one. She also worked well in a lovers’ duet with Mr Cencic. However, most of her arias were in a pathetic vein, requiring line-and-length singing in which she does not excel. Her face is largely expressionless throughout a performance and her mouth barely opens to let out sound. When she made an effort in recitative, the voice has a roundness of timbre and a perfectly serviceable vibrato. When sustaining long notes in a plaintive aria, she sings largely without vibrato with a steely purity which fails to elicit pity in this listener.
I think this was the only instance of ensemble between singers and orchestra wavering, which is a credit to the young conductor, although I wish you had seen Mr Cencic’s expression when he was waved back to his seat for yet another prolonged tuning break. Every young conductor needs to have a little of the “diva” about him in order to make his mark – Mr Emelyanychev’s style of conducting was anything but dull, even compensating at times for the Barbican Hall’s wishy-washy acoustic.
And so to Mr Cencic’s performance: I think in this rather low Senesino role he was in his finest form to date. Sometimes the fact that he has a flawless technique removes an element of risk and excitement. As Andronico he was throughout utterly engaged and engaging. The huge arcs of the sustained phrases in the slow arias haunt me still as I write this. There is no hint of falsetto in this singing voice; he is almost like some new variety of tenor – an haute contre without the constriction if you will. The even, velvety tone and the thrill when he reveals he still has a higher register in the ornamentation of a coloratura aria made this, for this listener, a benchmark performance of a Senesino role. The contemporary impresario Quantz wrote the following about Senesino, but it could equally be applied to Mr Cencic, “His manner of singing was masterly and his elocution unrivalled. … he sang allegros with great fire, and marked rapid divisions, from the chest, in an articulate and pleasing manner. His countenance was well adapted to the stage, and his action was natural and noble.”