Last year in the Grosvenor Chapel, to a modest but appreciative audience, Calvin Wells and Ensemble Serse presented Gluck’s Antigono. A few weeks prior to the Gluck, in the Andipa Gallery in Kensington – with Lewis Hamilton and his date spotted listening with interest before entering a nearby restaurant – Mr Wells and the English countertenor Tom Verney performed a serenata, Antonio e Cleopatra for soprano and mezzo.This mini-opera in two acts was composed in 1725 for Farinelli (singing the role of Cleopatra) and Vittoria Tesi, a contralto who sang the role of Marc Antony. Anyone who has attended past opera performances by Mr Wells will know that he has no qualms at all about gender-bending, getting countertenors and male sopranos to sing female roles while women sing trouser roles and/or castrato roles.) This is a perfectly authentic practice and keeps the audience guessing. Again, anyone who has attended an Ensemble Serse performance will know that Mr Wells prefers to sing the most challenging of castrato roles which offer the equivalent thrill of the tenor aria, “Ah, mes amis” from La fille du régiment. 18th century soprano arias for men should be just as exhilarating as the tenor in Donizetti; the castrato played the hero and lover, before losing his position to the heroic tenor.
I wanted to mention this performance of Hasse at Andipa for two reasons: firstly Hasse is long overdue a revival. Having heard operas in the opera seria tradition by Pergolesi, Porpora, Vinci, Vivaldi and Jomelli recently, Hasse stands head and shoulders above the rest for the quality of his orchestral writing. Whilst a singer might judge a composer by his vocal lines alone, any musician will tell you that the composers he admires the most are those who deliver more than a good tune. What Hasse does is take a huge leap forward from the monodic writing of the 17th century and writes a score as replete with colour and drama as a classical symphonic score. In this serenata, the cantabile arias (in this case most of those written for Tesi) embody the graceful elegance for which Hasse was renowned, whereas the coloratura written for Farinelli is breathtaking when well executed. Parnassus Arts on the continent has started to revive Hasse operas and we hope to hear much more of this composer’s oeuvre in coming years.
The second reason for mentioning this performance was the fact that this was the finest performance I have heard Mr Wells give to date. Mr Verney was perfectly cast for his smooth line-and-length singing, whilst Mr Wells negotiated near-perfect divisions and effected tasteful ornamentation. The duets were an absolute delight with the pair of voices beautifully matched and the volume appropriate for the chamber acoustic. After hearing Mr Wells’ baroque top Ds bouncing off the rear wall of the Grosvenor chapel on an annual basis, I was frankly genuinely surprised at his continence at the Andipa.
This soiree was followed by a concert performance of Gluck’s Antigono in which Mr Wells dressed in a dramatic silk number and gave a performance in the title role which came dangerously close to an impression of Sarah Bernhardt. Antigono was written less than a decade before Orfeo, but on first hearing could almost have been by a different composer. This was the Gluck, taught by Sammartini, who wrote for Carestini and had opere serie presented in the Roman and Venetian carnivals. It was taut, lively and at times lavishly baroque in sensibility. The outstanding singers in this performance were Mr Verney and a Canadian countertenor, based in Berlin, called Michael Taylor. Mr Taylor evidenced a brighter, more focused sound than the average English countertenor, with some beautiful liquidity in the higher part of his range. He is also perfectly placed to play a regal and heroic role, having the stage presence of a tenor despite the Fach of his voice. To these English ears, so used to hearing Italian recitative cut to shreds by producers since Handel’s day, one of the highlights of this operatic performance was the dramatic dialogue between Mr Verney and Mr Taylor. This was so masculine despite the tessitura, that I was convinced when the tenor entered he was actually a baritone.
Next to Les Bougies Baroques, directed by Ian Peter Bugeja, who presented a staged production of Il Parnaso Confuso at Wiltons Music Hall in August. This is a one-act azione teatrale, originally presented and performed by young members of the Hapsburg family in Schönbrunn Palace in the outskirts of Vienna in 1765. Stepping into the shoes of the Archduke who was to become Leopold II, Hapsburg Emperor, Mr Bugeja cast three women and one man in the four soprano roles originally sung by Archduchesses. This is a light and frivolous tale about Apollo and three Muses and a confusion over a wedding date, a gentle courtly wedding gift. I hugely admire what Mr Bugeja is doing. His performances are wonderfully lively and southern European (it is difficult to get further south than Malta, from whence this young conductor hails.) His programming is interesting, unearthing neglected 18th century arias by composers such as Porpora, Ariosti and Bononcini. He gives young singers the chance to acquire a taste for opera seria so they can supply a fix for us older fanatics. Finally he is thinking outside the box when it comes to casting, possibly even pushing the envelope(sic.) There is a growing band of modern countertenors prepared to sing higher than a tenth above middle C: the trouble is there aren’t enough international opera houses yet ready to employ them.
In Il Parnaso confuso we heard four “sopranos.” In reality we heard a soubrette, a dark-toned spinto, a budding dramatic soprano whose voice was almost too big for this repertoire and a male soprano who slotted in nicely somewhere between the dramatic and the spinto in both pitch and timbre. Daire Halpin impressed with a lot of high coloratura, neatly executed. Also impressive was Louisa Petais, a mezzo moving up to spinto with an impressive baroque training pedigree acquired in Italy. She was by far the most comfortable and confident of the women in the genre, both secure and lyrical in her coloratura and clearly articulating the Italian. Alison Manifold had the voice with the most potential, a big voice already with the bloom of a deeply-scented rose. It is almost too big to control already in fast coloratura, but this is a voice which will be able to transcend a Strauss orchestra. Miss Manifold also has a big, warm personality which commands attention when she is on stage. I hope we hear more from her very soon.
The fourth member of this motley crew of muses was the countertenor, Cenk Karaferya, in a pink tutu and a Barbara-Windsor-meets-Marie-Antoinette wig. What was striking about this performance was the fact he was, from the outset, “one of the girls,” both dramatically and vocally. Unlike an average English countertenor, Mr Karaferya has more of a richness and darkness to his tone and overall more character to the voice than we usually get from someone who has come up via the choral scholar route. I heard him for the first time live last year when he was Tom Verney’s cover in Dove’s The Little Green Swallow and was struck by the extent to which his voice production has developed in less than twelve months. Now, within his comfort zone, it is clear, focused and well supported. It remains to be seen just how much higher he can go: watch this space.
Next stop Innsbruck and a young man whose Twitter handle is “The guy who sings high.”