Monday, 1 September 2014

Countertenor Albums

Spurred on by my infatuation with Artaserse, which I now know pretty much by heart, I've bought rather a lot of albums to supplement my existing collection of countertenor music. Most of the purchases have been from the back catalogues of the opera's cast members. It's been a voyage of discovery and a genuine delight, and I thought it'd be fun to share some of them here. I'm only going to discuss those I enjoy, because it isn't fair to be critical, especially when it all boils down to the subjective question of which voices you prefer. Of course, I have no background in music so I don't know the technical language to describe what I'm hearing: this is all very much aimed at fellow newbies. If you're like me - keen on the sound, but floundering a bit about where to start - this might point you to some music you'll enjoy. Depending on how many more albums I unearth, there may be a follow-up post. (The albums are listed in order of purchase, to avoid any accusations of favouritism.)

A bit of everything: Handel, Porpora, Hasse, and lots of Broschi

This is a good place to start, although it's cheating. The voice you hear on this album isn't a countertenor - or at least not purely a countertenor. It was created in 1993-94 using the digitally spliced voices of a countertenor (Derek Lee Ragin) for the lower registers and a female soprano (Ewa Mallas Godlewska) for the higher notes, in an effort to achieve the full breadth of Farinelli's range. The result is beautiful but artificial; and we probably wouldn't have to do that now, because we have singers who can tackle virtually the full range of these arias without digital tweaking (which is hugely exciting). But the music on this album is a perfect introduction to the countertenor repertoire: there's a smashing mix of arias from Handel's delicious Cara sposa to a treasure trove of Broschi. Broschi doesn't get much love on the other albums I own, but he wrote some gorgeous pieces, often tailored for his talented brother Farinelli. Particular favourites are Broschi's Son qual nave ch' agitata and Ombra fedela anch' io and Porpora's Alto Giove (which everyone has recorded; it seems to be something of a countertenor rite of passage).

Max Emanuel Cencic: Venezia: Opera Arias of the Serenissima (2013)
Vivaldi, Caldara and friends

If you want someone to blame for all this, you can point the finger at the Croatian Max Emanuel Cencic. Last February I returned from Carnevale in Venice, intoxicated with masks and costumes, and bought this album as a way to prolong my immersion in the Baroque. It's sophisticated, grand and refined, very much like Venice herself. Favourite tracks include the sparkling Anche in mezzo a perigliosa by Vivaldi, with its demanding vocal runs up and down the scale; and the beautifully romantic Pianta bella, pianta amata by Albinoni. I hadn't really heard many countertenors before and most of those I had heard had been a little strained, so nothing prepared me for Cencic. This luxurious, warm, resonant and amazingly natural voice wasn't what I'd imagined at all. I was hooked. Having now listened to some of his earlier recordings, I can hear that his voice has grown a little deeper and richer in the last few years, making it a sumptuous delight to listen to. I'm going to see him in concert in December and I simply can't wait. 

Philippe Jaroussky: Carestini: The Story of a Castrato (2007)
Porpora, Handel, Hasse and co.

Shortly after buying Venezia, I spotted this album with its cover image of a brooding masked figure. It was my introduction to the French singer Philippe Jaroussky: his delicate, clear soprano was an eye-opener, different from Cencic's voice but equally stunning. It was sheer chance that I started out with an album by each of them, but it was fitting: they're the two current superstars of this field and their voices represent the two 'types' of countertenor that you tend to hear: the high sopranos and the lower, richer mezzos. This album appealed because it was structured around music connected with one particular castrato, which gave me a context to follow its 'story'. I'd assumed that the Handel tracks would be the highlights for me, but from the very beginning they had serious rivals. Certainly, I liked the virtuoso Sta nell'ircana from Handel's Alcina (where I kept thinking, 'When is he actually breathing?') and the exquisitely yearning Mi Lusinga from the same opera, but I also loved Se Mai Senti from Hasse's La Clemenza di Tito, which is very beautiful.

Philippe Jaroussky: Farinelli: Porpora Arias (2013)
Does what it says on the tin. Much Porpora

The combination of Jaroussky and Farinelli was too much to resist; and I loved the cover, with the two of them just hanging out having a chat. I have to be honest and say that I'm a little less fond of this album now than I was when I first bought it. That's because I've developed a taste for slightly more rounded voices and more power behind the flashy kind of arias. However, there are still some stunning moments here: the opening Mira in cielo is full of drama, and Come nave in ria tempesta from the opera Semiramide is a real showpiece. There are also a couple of duets, including La gioia ch'io sento from Mitridate - and I believe I'm right in saying that Jaroussky is singing here with Cecilia Bartoli. I can't think of a better modern parallel for the great Baroque pairings of primo uomo and prima donna. Of course, Jaroussky also does Alto Giove here, which develops into a jewel of modulated elegance that melts your kneecaps slightly when you listen to it. For sheer purity and delicacy, it's a stunner. 

Max Emanuel Cencic: Handel: Mezzo-Soprano Opera Arias (2010)
Unsurprisingly, rather a lot of Handel

Even though I got slightly sidetracked by Jaroussky, I hadn't renounced Cencic, and kept being drawn back to his rounder, fuller voice. I bought this album at about the same time as Artaserse and it really shows off his talent, playing to his broad range and the richly sensuous burr of his lower notes. It's hard to choose favourites because every track's gorgeous, alternating between lively and introspective. Plunging straight into the action, the album kicks off with Imeneo's aria Sorge nell'alma mia, which is nothing if not a showpiece. It's accompanied with some frantic strings, which is all rather fun, and even as a listener you scarcely get to draw breath all the way through. I also do love Pena tiranna, which Cencic performs with exquisite poise and richness, and turns into a feast for the ears. The album is pretty close to perfect. His control is practically faultless to my unpractised ears and, if Jaroussky's voice is like clear spring water, Cencic's is like sumptuous honey.

Franco Fagioli: Arias for Caffarelli (2013)
An embarrassment of riches: Vinci, Porpora, Hasse and more

Moving on from spring water and honey, this is a little blast of champagne for the ears, as the Argentinian Fagioli shows off some more glittering swagger-arias. Things get underway with Fra l'orror della tempesta from Hasse's Siroe, with some splendid high notes. There's more Vinci courtesy of the brilliant In braccio a mille furie from Semiramide riconosciuta, with which Fagioli predictably has a field day; but there are also some calmer pieces. My current favourite is Lieto così talvolta from Pergolese's Adriano in Siria, with its gorgeous instrumental opening. The whole album has a delicious energy, perfectly suited to his playful verve as a singer. I'm very bad at concealing my enthusiasms, so it's probably obvious that I'm completely in thrall to his voice. What I most enjoy is the sense of bubbling possibility: every aria teeters on the brink of a firework display. Apparently he's even better seen live. I'm going to see him in just over a fortnight and I'm so excited: there are no words.

Max Emanuel Cencic: Rokoko: Hasse Opera Arias (2014)
At last! Some love for Hasse

This is probably a good moment to point out that Cencic has a very individual take on album covers. His outfits are often particularly off-the-wall (the current winner is his 2006 Scarlatti album), but when you have such a divine voice, I suppose you can wear what you darn well please. Anyway... I happened to buy Rokoko and Reloaded (see below) at the same time in an acquisitive flurry, without realising that they're both devoted to the works of Hasse. Fortunately, whether by accident or design, they present completely different programmes. Here, it's once again hard to choose favourites because Cencic is so good throughout, but his opening track, Notte amica from the Cantico dei tre fanciulli is simply stupendous. Just savour those opening notes... By contrast, the closing Vo disperato a morte from the opera Tito Vespasiano is a beguiling combination of splendour and sensitivity. I can forgive him anything: even the fact he gives away three tracks for a mandolin concerto when I just want to hear more of him. Whether I compare his voice to honey or velvet or melted chocolate, one thing's for sure: the man has class.

Valer Barna-Sabadus: Reloaded: Johann Adolph Hasse (2012)
And actually... more love for Hasse

The Romanian Barna-Sabadus is the youngest of this crop of countertenors: only 28. He has a remarkably distinctive voice: richer than Jaroussky's and considerably higher-pitched than Cencic's, with something of a thrush-like warble (yes: see me, with my lack of musical vocabulary, clutching at metaphors). He took on the challenge of championing Hasse two years before Cencic; and his album tends towards more delicate, introspective pieces, which allow his voice to do what it does best: soar to simply ethereal heights. The opening aria, Tu mi disarmi il fianco from Hasse's Didone abbandonata, is lovely, but my favourite track is the beautiful Bei labbri che Amore from a cantata called La gelosia. It's an angelic, thoroughly gorgeous tone. He'll probably end up singing a lot of female roles: he's already been a stunning Semira in Artaserse and he'll be taking on another female role for Team Artaserse in the near future (see below). Since in real life he has rakish good looks to go with that lovely voice, I think he's going to continue doing very well. 

Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic: Duetti (2011)
Porpora, Bononcini et al

This is one of a number of CDs I've bought which focus not on the showy operatic pieces but on quieter, smaller-scale chamber pieces: it's good for me to broaden my horizons. This album unites the two current idols of the countertenor world, and it's a treat to hear them together, especially because their voices are distinctive but very complementary. One of my favourite tracks is the immensely refined Chi d'amor tra le catene, the eponymous duet from Giovanni Bononcini's opera, which is stately and very close to divine. By contrast, La nobile luce from Benedetto Marcello's cantata Chiaro e limpido fonte, is a trippingly cheerful duet which frankly makes me want to dance around the room. And the album concludes with a bit of a fireworks show from Scarlatti, courtesy of Nel cor del cor mio, which is a sparkling twining of the two voices which ripple in and out of one another like a waterfall. The album was the brainchild of William Christie of Les Arts Florissant, of whom you'll be hearing much more very soon.

Valer Barna-Sabadus: To Touch, To Kiss, To Die (2013)
Music by Purcell, Matteis, Poole and Dowland

This is a bit of a curiosity in my music collection because it showcases some 17th-century English music, which feels rather mannered in comparison to Hasse and Vinci. However, Barna-Sabadus's beautifully controlled voice gives it a bewitching elegance. As ever, his high notes have a thrilling purity and power that make your jaw drop. O solitude, my sweetest choice is intoxicating; and the album also fittingly includes Purcell's If music be the food of love. I find it rather magical to hear such a lovely voice singing in English. I should take the music with me to Hampton Court or Banqueting House, to listen to it in context. The title is taken from Come again, sweet love doth now invite by Dowland, which shows off Barna-Sabadus's pellucid high notes: 'To see, to hear, to touch, to kiss to die!'. It's the musical equivalent of one of Isaac Oliver's melancholic young men: perfect music for serenading maidens by moonlight (which doesn't happen enough nowadays, if you ask me).

Franco Fagioli: Canzone e Cantate (2011)
Early Baroque Italian music

Fagioli's pre-Artaserse album is another collection of early music: this time Italian. Stately and courtly, it's generally a little more fluid than Purcell and Dowland, offering a rare opportunity to hear Fagioli in a much less frenetic mood. Most of the songs are by anonymous composers and are performed with the accompaniment of a single lute, with the occasional cheerful intrusion of the harpsichord or cello. The more I listen to it, the more it grows on me. Monteverdi's Si dolce è 'l tormento is full of yearning, while the anonymous Care luci is austere but beautiful, given colour by Fagioli's vibrant voice. He gets into slightly more familiar territory with the virtuoso aria Cor ingrato dispietato, in which he fits an absolutely unbelievable number of notes into one line: so many, that it's quite exhausting to listen to. But then he returns to the more delicate and romantic Nel cor più non mi sento (though he can't resist a few little trills here and there). It's serene and graceful, a perfect counterpart to the flamboyance of his operatic arias (though I think I'm always going to prefer those).

Yuriy Mynenko: Mortelmans: When the Soul Listens (2013)
Something a little different and more modern: piano works and songs

You wouldn't believe how hard it is to track down Yuriy Mynenko. For someone who has such a fabulous voice - his Megabise in Artaserse was immensely impressive - he hasn't recorded very much at all and, although he has a website, it doesn't seem to list any forthcoming concert dates. I eventually found this album of piano music by the Belgian composer Lodewijk Mortelmans (1868-1952), which features three songs performed by Mynenko: Hoe schoon de morgendauw, Perels and Als de ziele luistert. Huge credit for not only singing in Dutch but making it sound beautiful. It's just a taster of his voice, unfortunately, but its power and grandeur come through very clearly and I really hope he gets round to recording more Baroque music. I should add that the pure piano tracks, performed by Peter Vanhove, are also wonderful to listen to: fluid, sweeping and very relaxing (perfect listening for a lazy Sunday breakfast). But if anyone knows of anywhere I can find more Mynenko, I'll be grateful.

And finally, looking forward...

No, there are not enough chandeliers! I demand more chandeliers!
The Opéra Royal at Versailles. Image from here
I was sent into transports of delight about a fortnight ago, when I discovered that Team Artaserse are coming back for another bash at Leonardo Vinci. In June next year, at the Opéra Royal at Versailles, they'll revive Vinci's Catone in Utica... and oh what a cast! Unfortunately Jaroussky and Mynenko won't be involved, but Fagioli will sing the role of Cesare, the tenor Juan Sancho (formerly Artabano) will be Catone, Cencic will be (a different) Arbace and Barna-Sabadus will be taking on the prima donna role of Marzia. There are also two names I don't yet know: the tenor Martin Mitterrutzner will sing Fulvio, and Vince Yi will play Emilia. Of course, I had to be rational about it. Grown up. Sensible. The opera at Versailles doesn't come cheap and so I had to ask myself whether I really wanted to see these guys in the flesh... performing an opera by Vinci... in a small theatre crammed with gold, chandeliers and 18th-century bling.

Oh, come now. I was rational for approximately five seconds. It's going to be my 30th next year, so I've booked seats at the Opéra Royal for myself and my parents as a kind of birthday present-to-self. Based on the Vinci I've heard so far, I'm pretty sure I'm going to love it. More importantly, I can't get over the thought that I'll be mere feet away from no fewer than three of my favourite singers at once. Be still my beating heart. Here's hoping for more crazy costumes, cuffs dripping with lace, dramatic feather headdresses, and meltingly sublime singing. Now I just have to be patient for eight months...

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Castrato and his Wife: Helen Berry

(published by Oxford University Press, £9.99, or available from Amazon)


I've had an unintentionally Baroque-themed summer, so you've got a series of posts on countertenors and castrati coming up. (Although I was going to apologise for it, I've changed my mind: if one person discovers Leonardo Vinci or Franco Fagioli because of these posts, I'll be happy.) It's all because I've spent the summer shuttling back and forth across Europe for work, which sounds glamorous, but actually just means that I'm more familiar with the layout of Schipol airport than anyone could really desire. It's been hard to concentrate on books so I've been trying to teach myself about music instead. You've already had my Artaserse post and there's plenty more where that came from, although I will start reading more novels again soon, I promise.

For now, I decided it was time to give myself a bit of historical background to the music I've been listening to, and I kicked off with this intriguing glimpse into the archives. Helen Berry's research lays bare (unintended pun) a unique English legal case from the mid-18th century. She follows the ramifications of the love affair between Dorothea Maunsell, an impetuous Irish girl of good family in her mid-teens, and Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci: one of the most celebrated singers in London, a composer and a renowned music teacher. After a whirlwind romance, the lovers eloped and married in secret, leaving Dorothea's family seething with fury. They had some cause. Despite his celebrity, Tenducci was by far their social inferior: he was the son of a servant. Worse than that, he was Italian. Even worse, he was thirty years old, twice their impressionable daughter's age. 

But Tenducci's worst crime was something over which he had equally little control: he was a castrato. Unlike Italian law, English law didn't actually forbid castrati from marrying (in Italy, Tenducci would have faced the death penalty), but that's only because no one ever imagined the question would come up. Tenducci was no stranger to gossip, of course. He was condemned to a lifetime of prurient interest in the contents of his trousers. But he would find that his passionate attachment to Dorothea brought him into a whole new realm of scandalous publicity. At first the newlyweds outfaced their critics - Dorothea even published a breathless autobiographical account of their courtship, emphasising their romance and their commitment to one another in spite of her family's attempts to kidnap her and murder Tenducci. Gradually, the scandal began to lose its edge. And then, when the perennially indebted singer and his wife returned to his native Tuscany, the worst happened. Dorothea met and fell in love with a wealthy young Englishman. She hurried back to Britain with him, to the relieved embrace of her parents, and embarked on another, much more acceptable marriage. But to what extent had her first marriage been legal? She and Tenducci had certainly gone through the ceremonies. But what exactly determined if a marriage had taken place? Was it the ceremony itself? The consummation? Or when the woman became pregnant? And if it was either of the latter, then had Dorothea and Tenducci ever been married at all? One has to feel for the poor man. Abandoned by his young wife, whom he obviously adored, Tenducci had to watch as a humiliating court case unfolded, which examined his anatomical peculiarities in unforgiving detail and asked whether a castrated man could legally enter into marriage, which existed for the sole purpose of procreation.

Berry uses this remarkable case as a springboard to look at the marital and sexual mores of the 18th century and, more specifically, at the phenomenon of the castrati, particularly as they were regarded in Great Britain. She does her best to recreate Tenducci's childhood and his training at the conservatory of Santa Maria della Pietà dei Turchini in Naples, where one of his tutors was the temperamental Caffarelli. He made his debut in 1753 in Venice and in 1758 he was head-hunted for the King's Theatre in London. Tenducci's time in London would cement his fame - but also prove to be his ruin. Despite our reputation for stiff upper lips in England, we've always been peculiarly susceptible to all things Italian. That extended to these singers with their ravishing voices, their boyish looks and their statuesque height (often six foot or more, due to the disruption of usual growth patterns). It's also interesting that this is one of the comparatively rare cases in history where the female gaze takes centre-stage: Tenducci and his fellow castrati were famous for their voices, but they were infamous for the fervent adoration they inspired in their hordes of female fans:
Earlier in the century, an Englishwoman had notoriously shouted from the audience during an operatic production by the greatest castrato of them all, 'One God, one Farinelli!', at a stroke breaking the taboo against a woman raising her voice in public, blaspheming, and making a spectacle of her desire.
Well, if you're going to do something, do it properly. But the problem was that the singers were all too often very ready to oblige their admirers. A central issue in the Tenducci trial would prove to be the extent to which they were able to oblige. It was a question that had already been energetically debated for some time, primarily by male satirists (one senses an element of insecurity in the face of the dazzling success these foreigners were having with their womenfolk).

Tenducci painted by Gainsborough (left) in about 1773 (Barber Institute, Birmingham)
and by Thomas Beach (right) in about 1783 (Garrick Club, London)
Berry's book is full of information and it's well written. I always enjoy fiction or history that starts from a chance mention in the archives and spirals out to offer a broader picture of a period. Of course, this book was particularly fascinating because it offers both a new perspective on the history of my city and a context for the music I've been listening to. On that note (another pun - sorry), I found it rather amusing that Tenducci's signature aria was Water parted from the sea, from Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes, based on the same Metastasio libretto as Vinci's opera ("Go on," I mentally challenged Tenducci, "I bet it wasn't as good as L'onda dal mar divisa"). Throughout, Berry admirably fleshes out the bare archival facts and she is enormously sympathetic to Tenducci, who certainly ended up with the raw end of the deal in so many ways. 

I freely admit that I'm guilty of romanticising the castrati. Their stories are so tantalising: the love affairs, the tempestuous arrogance... the music! As I said, I've been immersing myself in a lot of these arias recently and I was rather surprised by Berry's implication that it's hard to understand the castrati's appeal for their female fans. For me it isn't difficult at all, if they sounded even halfway like some of the talented young singers tackling this music today. You'll hear more about them soon, but for now go and listen to something like Alto Giove done by Cencic, or Barna-Sabadus or Jaroussky: their blend of sensitivity, bravura and soaring notes is intoxicating. So I completely understand why a romantic young girl like Dorothea would have been swept off her feet by Tenducci's exotic charm and the beauty of his voice. If I'd been alive then, I'd have been fighting my way into the Haymarket for his concerts too.

And yet, Berry's book emphasises that we're actually better off being able to hear this music sung beautifully by men who've chosen to make this their art form. Tenducci and his fellow castrati had no choice. The choice was made for them, when they were too young to understand what they were giving up and, as Tenducci's life shows, some of them were never able to come to terms with the fact that they couldn't be husbands and fathers as they longed to be. This must have had a profound psychological impact. When questioned at the trial, Tenducci's former flatmate remembered that he always carried his testicles in a little velvet bag in the pocket of his breeches: a detail which, first of all, rather took me aback; but which I then found desperately sad. Berry notes that he must have seen them as relics of sorts: fragments of the man he'd never been able to become. And another affecting detail comes from a deposition given to the trial investigators in Florence. A witness remembered a conversation he'd had with Tenducci's mother about the time her son was castrated. 
I have... heard his Mother say that she had not Courage sufficient to be present at the Castrating of her... Son, but that she was in a passage next the Room where the Operation was done, and when she heard him cry out, 'Ayi My Mama', which was in the the very Instant of the Operation, she thought to have Died of the pain she felt at that Instant.
Tenducci was eleven years old at the time. And that's something that has to be borne in mind. Probably thousands of boys were castrated during the course of this craze. A mere handful reached the dizzy heights: the glamour and the gold and the performances for princes. The rest were condemned to obscurity or, at the very worst, destitution. But they must have all started out in much the same way as Tenducci: terrified, confused children, strapped to makeshift operating tables and screaming for their mothers as any alternative future was cut away.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The King and the Slave: Tim Leach

(published by Atlantic Books on 4 September 2014, or from Amazon)

«««« ½
What a thing it was, to be an old man and to see such things, to have no hope of living long enough to forget them. There was always hope for the young, that the world would heal and be reshaped as the decades pass, if only you can survive to see it. An old man looks on the broken world that surrounds him, and knows he will die there.
When I finished Tim Leach's debut novel, The Last King of Lydia, I was deeply impressed: he'd transformed a story from Herodotus into an elegant and beautifully-written meditation on fortune and happiness. Little did I guess that I'd have the pleasure of reading another of his books so soon (and a sequel no less!), returning to the sumptuous might of the Persian empire in the 6th century BC. 

If anything,
The King and the Slave is even more powerful than its predecessor: this is a darker place, in which horrific things happen, but the story is told with poetic grace and humanity. Leach, like his source material, revels in the breadth of the ancient world and its wealth of societies, from the nomadic tribes of the Middle East to the ritualised formality of Egypt. Since I haven't yet got to this part of Herodotus, I had no idea what the rest of Croesus' story would hold; and what a drama it is! Hubris, shame, honour, friendship, snatched moments of serenity, and a bittersweet conclusion which is nevertheless cathartic, as a good Greek tragedy should be.

Cyrus, the great king, is dead: cut down in a battle to take an endless plain from the nomadic Massagetae, a people of no significance save that they have the temerity to stand against the ruthless expansion of the Persian empire. His army retreats in confusion. Among them is Croesus, the slave who was once the mighty king of Lydia but has spent almost half his life in Cyrus' entourage as a curiosity, a reminder of fallen greatness, and a trusted adviser. As the throne passes to Cyrus' troubled son Cambyses, Croesus longs for the courage and the wisdom to guide this young man to become as great as his father. But Cambyses is not Cyrus. Terrified by his prematurely fading sight, and driven by an all-consuming desire to prove himself greater than his sire, Cambyses plunges into a series of changeable obsessions and ambitions which gradually deteriorate into horrifying madness. His whims set Persia against the great and ancient Egyptian empire and even against the raw force of nature itself. For the first time, Croesus finds himself in a world where a misjudged comment or a wrong step can lead to immediate execution: a world in which the whim of the king, and a mad king, is law. Using his rare relationship with the unstable young man, Croesus must try to find a way to save not only himself but also his beloved friends Isocrates and Maia from Cambyses' murderous fury. His meditation on Cyrus' fading energy could justly be applied to the fate of Cambyses' rule as a whole: 'It is possible to feel the cold more acutely in the presence of a dying fire than in front of no fire at all'.

Like the first book, this novel juxtaposes notions of kingship and simple human existence: the vainglory of rulers, who have the power to make the world a better place but so rarely the will; and the helplessness of lesser men, who have the desire but little opportunity. Croesus forms the perfect bridge between these two conditions. As in the last book, he is still haunted by Solon's theory of happiness: that a man can never claim truly to be happy until he dies, and one can take the measure of his death. Mindful of this, Croesus has learned to do his best to live well and do good, even in a world which seems increasingly designed to throw him into the lap of the very worst of human nature. But he finds himself swayed by his enduring, ill-fated affection for those who must suffer the terrible burden of kingship. There's one particularly moving moment when, in the face of Cambyses' megalomania, he comes to realise their own insignificance. Having grown up with stories of his descent from the gods - and the belief that the gods walked the earth only sixteen generations ago - Croesus finds himself in Egypt, a world more ancient than Lydia or Persia, faced with a list of temple servants stretching back four hundred generations. These humble men have their names recorded for eternity; Croesus' own kingly ancestors have faded into oblivion and dust. 'How little one life counted for, he thought, in that annihilating ocean of time.' There are shades of Ozymandias.

I always say that a good historical novel should leave you itching to find out more. In the hours since finishing the book, I've been trying to fit Cyrus and Cambyses into my limited patchwork of Persian history (cobbled together from the Battles of Salamis, Thermopylae and Issus and the - it turns out - historically inaccurate plot of Artaserse). Since I'm currently abroad and thus deprived of Herodotus, I'm afraid this means Wikipedia. In a book as well-written as this, I never quite know what's fictional and what's fact, but much of it seems to be on the historical record. For example, I was fascinated by Cyrus' dream in the novel in which he sees Cambyses with black wings spreading from his shoulders, dripping oil across the known world. I initially took this for a fiction (and a striking one at that), but apparently the dream is recorded by historians, although they say Cyrus was dreaming of the future Darius I (the son of one of his courtiers) rather than Cambyses himself. Once again, it seems, Leach has achieved the feat he managed in the first book: taking dry historical facts and alchemising them into a story so controlled and compelling that it feels like it's being told for the first time. (None of that earnest weight of research here that plagues so many historical novels.) Clearly I must go back to Herodotus on my return home, and my Forgotten Empire catalogue from the British Museum exhibition on Ancient Persia. The history of this period looks very confusing, but absolutely gripping.

Like its predecessor, this is a thought-provoking, finely-crafted novel which opens up the thrilling vistas of a world that I simply haven't had much of a chance to encounter before. Croesus makes a flawed but deeply humane protagonist and, even in the book's darkest hours, Leach manages to fill his writing with sympathetic insights into his characters' minds, whether they are kings, slaves or those who survive on the precarious threads of power that run between the two. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next. Hopefully he'll unearth more wonderful stories from the classical world - by which point, I promise you, I will have read Herodotus... Thoroughly recommended for those who enjoy thoughtful, powerful historical fiction along the lines of Renault and Yourcenar. Needless to say, if you do get round to reading Leach's books, please do take the time to let me know what you thought of them.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Artaserse: Leonardo Vinci (1730)

(directed by Diego Fasolis, 2012)


Before we start, I should emphasise: not the artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), but the composer Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730). I must also add a disclaimer. As you may remember, I know nothing about the technicalities of music. In this field I am, more than ever, merely an enthusiastic amateur. That's especially the case in Baroque music, which must be one of the most technically complex and elaborate areas of classical music. However, as I've said before, I'm fascinated by the phenomenon of the castrati and, as such, this particular opera (and performance) was one I couldn't resist. 

The last few weeks have been very hard, because I will soon be moving jobs and leaving behind a team of people I love deeply, but going on to some truly exciting things. It's a terrifying time, but a thrilling one too. And, as I've tackled interview preparation, setbacks and crises of self-belief, my one constant has been Artaserse. With one last warning for excessive enthusiasm... let's plunge into a multimedia romp through a superb opera.

I ended up with this 2012 recording, directed by Diego Fasolis, because I was on a mission to buy every album by Philippe Jaroussky that I could find. I came across Jaroussky about a year ago, when I bought his Carestini album and fell in love with his crystalline countertenor. Shortly afterwards I bought his album Farinelli: Porpora Arias, mainly because it had 'Alto Giove' on it and that's an aria that always makes me go weak at the knees. (Actually, I think Jaroussky's live rendition of it is far more successful than the CD recording, where he seems to have a bit of a wobble on the opening messa di voce, but that might just be me.) Then I bought his Virtuoso Cantatas and then, thanks to Tom Holland's Twitter feed, I discovered his meltingly beautiful Cum Dederit from Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, which he absolutely nails - it's the kind of track you listen to dreamily, late at night, in a candlelit room with a glass of Tokaji. And then I discovered Vinci's 1730 opera Artaserse, a rarely-performed work which was recorded in 2012 both as a theatrical performance and as a CD. More to the point, this is an opera with a difference. Five of the six main roles were written for castrato singers and there are some formidably difficult arias. It's no wonder that it's so little performed. But in this particular production, five of the world's leading countertenors gathered to take on the challenge of this dizzying music, and the result is nothing short of spectacular. 

I have the DVD and the CD and I've been listening to the CD on repeat for practically the last fortnight, so I want to talk about the music first, and then the performance. There are two arias in particular I want to focus on. Incidentally, I have to apologise publicly to Alan, Jess and Heloise, all of whom have been in the firing line over the past fortnight and have been subjected to me bouncing up to them (in person or by email) and making them listen to fragments of the opera, while exclaiming, "Isn't this incredible?!!!" To their credit, none of them told me to go away, no matter how tempting that must have been. 

Semira resists her unwelcome suitor Megabise  |  Arbace and Artaserse in a quiet moment  |  Semira trapped again by Megabise
To give you a brief overview of a very labyrinthine plot: the scheming Artabano, whom I shall call the Grand Vizier whether he technically is one or not, plots to take control of the Persian empire by placing his own son Arbace on the throne. The opera opens with Artabano's murder of the king, Serse. Sending the unwilling Arbace off to hide the murder weapon, Artabano frames Serse's eldest son, Dario, as the murderer. The inexperienced prince Artaserse, Dario's younger brother, finds himself obliged to condemn his brother to death. However, no sooner has Dario been executed than chaos erupts. Arbace has been caught in the palace gardens with a bloody sword and is hauled before the prince. Despite protesting his innocence, Arbace is unable to explain himself: his filial piety prevents him from implicating his father. Of course, this isn't remotely what Artabano had planned, but he has to play along. Privately, he and his ally, the general Megabise, try to think of a way to get Arbace out of prison. Publicly, Artabano disowns Arbace and protests his own loyalty to Artaserse. As for the poor prince, he has his brother's blood on his hands, and feels that he's just been betrayed by his closest friend. Not only that, Arbace is also his potential brother-in-law: Arbace is in love with Artaserse's fiery sister Mandane, while Artaserse himself (very neatly) is in love with Arbace's sister Semira. With the ambitious Megabise and Artabano skulking at his heels, and deprived of the one man he trusts, Artaserse decides to do what he can to save his friend, and springs Arbace from prison. But his generosity backfires when Artabano thinks that Arbace's sudden disappearance just means that Artaserse has had him executed - and he is determined to get his revenge on the young king. The moral of the story? Your Grand Vizier is not your friend.

It's important to note that I'm not a big fan of opera per se, but Artaserse won my heart from the opening chords, with an allegro sinfonia that is so gloriously grand and perky, I want it for my ringtone (or my alarm clock). I find it impossible to listen to it without a stupidly big grin on my face. It was the perfect opera for me: every aria sparkles, everyone gets their moment in the sun with some ridiculously elaborate ornamentation, the music is compulsively whistlable, and there's never a dull moment. There's also a beautiful balance between elegant introspection and crazy extroversion. Jaroussky plays Artaserse (who was played by Raffaele Signorini in the original 1730 production) and, as the biggest celebrity in the cast (and the prettiest), he gets to be the poster-boy for the production. Franco Fagioli plays the hero Arbace (a part created for the great castrato Carestini). Max Emanuel Cencic takes the role of Mandane (created for Giacinto Fontana; and, as I understand it, Cencic was one of the driving forces behind the entire revival project, for which he should be congratulated). Valer Barna-Sabadus makes a startlingly elegant Semira (first played by Giuseppe Appiani); Yuriy Mynenko is Megabise (played originally by Giovanni Ossi); and Daniel Behle, the sole tenor in the cast, takes on the treacherous Artabano himself. This part was played by Francesco Tolve in the original cast; Behle is in the CD version; the role is performed by Juan Sancho on the DVD.

The triumphant conclusion of Vo solcando un mar crudele  |  Artabano browbeats the naive Artaserse  |
Artaserse in torment over his condemnation of his brother, supported by Semira, Mandane and Artabano
As I said, two arias stood out for me and, to my surprise, neither of those was performed by Jaroussky (although his beautiful rendition of Per pietà, bell' idol mio came in a very close third place). In second place was the gorgeous Tu vuoi ch'io viva o cara from the third act of the opera, which is a duet between Arbace and his sweetheart Mandane. It's one of the most romantic duets I've ever heard. Mandane has spent much of the opera believing that Arbace murdered her father, despite his protestations of innocence. Now that he has vanished from prison, she assumes he's dead and her heart begins to soften. When he suddenly turns up in her apartments, she's equally shocked and relieved - though still not quite able to forgive him. The most beautiful song follows, in which his voice audibly woos and seduces hers. At first he tries to win her over and she resists, brushing him off – 
ARBACE: Sentimi. (Listen to me.)
ARBACE: Tu sei... (You are...)
MANDANE: Parti dagli occhi miei; Lasciami per pietà! (Get out of my sight; Leave me, for pity's sake!) 
But then he persists, gently, wooing her, refusing to be put off, and in the Fagioli / Cencic version you can hear the moment when his gentle insistence – 'Cara!' ('Darling!') – melts her. Her lines become more fragmented, her 'No!' becomes less fierce and more yearning (for once, this is a woman saying ‘no’ but really, really meaning ‘yes’), and then in the following lines their voices twine together in the most incredible way, the notes winding in and out of one another… it’s such a splendid performance. And Fagioli’s and Cencic's voices work so well together – Fagioli's voice is richer across a wider range, so he takes the lower notes, and Cencic's voice is warm and full but a little gentler, and easily soars up to the more feminine part of the duet. It’s just stunning. 

So, if that was in second place, the gold medal was taken by Fagioli's solo performance of the aria Vo solcando un mar crudele, which concludes the first act.* Arbace is thrown into emotional turmoil by the fact that he can't save himself without betraying his father, and this turns into a showpiece aria of epic proportions. If you don't know what the song's about, it actually all sounds rather jolly - and the way it's performed in the DVD rather backs that up - but the more I listen to it, the more I realise what a challenge it is. I hadn't come across Fagioli before and yet I'd barely heard him sing a few lines before I was riveted. His voice has such richness and such range - velvety and rounded and powerful whether it's down at the tenor end of the spectrum, or soaring effortlessly up into the dazzlingly high reaches of the soprano range. How does he do it? Next to him, the rest of the cast (despite their brilliance) sound a little hollow and forced on the high notes, or at least a bit thin. But not only is Fagioli's range incredible. His vocal acrobatics are unbelievable. Sure, he has to take a breath now and then, in a phrase which Farinelli et al. would probably have been able to dash off in one go, but Fagioli casually throws in the kind of rippling coloratura that makes you listen with your mouth hanging open. There's one moment when he descends into a tenor note and then, mere seconds later, his voice shoots up to a note so high that in the Farinelli film they could only get it by splicing a female soprano's voice into the mix. (If anyone's listening, can't we get another film or TV series about Farinelli with Fagioli playing him? It would be magical to see someone in the role who can tackle that kind of music without digital doctoring.)

Well. You get the point. Fagioli has completely bowled me over. I've already pre-ordered his album of Porpora arias, which is coming out in the autumn (and I've just booked tickets to see him at the Wigmore Hall on 21 September!). I still love Jaroussky, of course, but his gorgeously ethereal, pure voice seems to work best with slightly different music. Take the Cum Dederit I mentioned earlier, for example, or Lascia ch'io pianga, both of which suit his crystalline tones very well, but I can’t imagine him playing Arbace with as much panache and drama as Fagioli.

And so, the DVD. I have to kick off with a further comment. With music of this sort, I am hugely biased by my fondness for the performances in Farinelli. If I were going to perform one of the great castrato arias, I would jolly well want to make my entrance on a chariot descending from the heavens, dressed in gold, crimson and fabulous plumes, thank you very much. If you're going to do Baroque, in my opinion, you should darn well do it properly: so I was a bit alarmed when the first clips I saw on YouTube (of Arbace's and Artaserse's duet) suggested that everything was a bit monochrome. Hah! I needn't have worried. When I watched the whole thing, there were flowing lace cuffs, Rococo gowns, crazy feather collars and really rather scary jackets with massively padded shoulders. Fagioli, God bless him, performed Vo solcando un mar crudele wearing a periwig of architectural proportions, an 18th-century suit and heavy make-up. He looked very much like I imagine a castrato would have looked – and it was fantastic. You must watch the clip on YouTube (linked above), because in the stage performance his voice goes even higher than on the CD. It's just mental. For his duet with Cencic (again, see above), poor Fagioli gets into something which looks distractingly like a costume from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, while Cencic is taken out of his Rococo frock and put into a feathered headdress with wings and a big frothy skirt. The fact they can both pull out the heart-melting beauty of the music despite looking rather silly just confirms how brilliant they are. You should maybe listen to the music before watching it, because then you'll be able to lose yourself in its splendour before being distracted by the staging.

There is nothing wrong with the staging, but it is self-consciously artificial. During the overture, you watch the singers wander on, chat to one another and stroll down to the front of the stage to watch the orchestra, before being taken off to the sides of the stage where we watch their dressers put the finishing touches to their wigs and costumes. It's cleverly done, and it reminded me a bit of the all-male version of Twelfth Night, where you watched the actors transforming into their parts - I suppose it's a good way to acknowledge the artificiality of the performance you're putting before the audience. But a part of me yearned for something grander and more over-the-top (though Vo solcando un mar crudele went a long way towards mollifying me, with Fagioli's cascading wig and structured frock coat, and the showers of gold at the end). For all that, this performance is just dazzling. For it to have won my heart - when I'm not even all that keen on opera - is a very big recommendation. As an insight into historical performances, it's tantalising. Fagioli's performance is especially captivating and, though we will never know what Farinelli and his ilk really sounded like, it's tempting to believe that he gets someway towards the staggering virtuosity of their voices (those glittering, tumbling cascades of notes!). Above all, we're fantastically lucky to have a record of six such fine singers coming together for such an unprecedented project. Had I known this was happening in 2012, I've have almost chewed my own arm off to get there (so it's probably fortunate that I didn't), but as it is, I'm going to be on the lookout for any concerts by these very talented young men, and I hope that the critical success of this performance might convince other directors to give us more glimpses of the grandeur of the 18th-century stage.

The dream team: Jaroussky (Artaserse)  |  Fagioli (Arbace) |  Cencic (Mandane) |  Barna-Sabadus (Semira)  |
Mynenko (Megabise) |  Behle (CD Artabano) |  Sancho (DVD Artabano)
* Incidentally, does anyone know if Vinci's Vo solcando un mar crudele covers the same part of the story as Broschi's Son qual nave ch' agitata, written for the 1734 collaborative opera Artaserse and performed by his brother Farinelli? I would think so, judging by the similar spirit of the titles, but I don't know the 1734 version at all, beyond what's in the film Farinelli.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Fool's Assassin: Robin Hobb

(published by Harper Voyager, £20, or available from 12 August from Amazon)

««« ½

Fitz and the Fool: Book I

On 12 August the first book in Robin Hobb's new trilogy will be published, reacquainting us with characters whom we last met ten years ago in the heart-rending Fool's Fate (or during last year's reread, in my case). I was thrilled to be granted a review copy of Fool's Assassin, which I've been mulling over for some months; and, as publication date draws nigh, it's time to share my thoughts. As you know, Hobb's books have played a crucial role in my formation as a reader, and ever since I heard that a new trilogy was in the pipeline, I haven't been able to help feeling rather anxious. Let me explain.

The first two trilogies about Fitz - The Farseer and The Tawny Man - tell an evocative and powerful story in which adventure and political intrigue are combined with a masterful and sympathetic first-person narration. They are beautifully balanced, full of poise. Hobb is extremely good at giving just enough information to tease and tantalise us, without taking the final step that would rip away the veil and destroy the magic. I wondered whether a new trilogy would be able to maintain that sleight of hand and tight control. And I had more personal qualms. What if I didn't like what I found? What if the characters no longer 'rang true'? And, most crucially, would the story feel as if it had to be told? How could it grow organically out of the earlier books, when they ended on such a tidily resolved note? Despite my love for the characters and this world, I was concerned that this book might just feel like an excuse to bring Fitz back. And, although I very much want to tell you that this series is gripping and just as overwhelmingly brilliant as the earlier books, I'm not going to do that just because it's by one of my favourite authors and features two of my favourite characters. The series is going to have to work for it. It's tough being one of my favourite authors: I get very uncompromising. And, for now, the jury is still out.

We open the book at Withywoods, the country estate where Fitz (known to all as Tom Badgerlock) and his beloved wife Molly have built a comfortable life for themselves. Fitz is in his late forties and, although this will come as a shock to anyone who's spent much time in his company, he's actually content. He has the woman he loves, affectionate stepchildren, and the gratitude of the court at Buckkeep, where Dutiful is now king and Fitz's daughter Nettle is Skillmistress. But fear not, fellow Hobbers: we've barely stepped into the story before dark undercurrents start to emerge. Although Fitz has put his days of quests and dragons behind him, he's still haunted by memories of Nighteyes and the Fool; and, although he plays at being a country gentleman, you only have to scratch the surface to find the assassin underneath. Molly is ailing with an unspecified illness which seems to be weakening her mind as much as her body, and Fitz is terrified of being left alone again. And then he hears rumours of strange messengers who seem to be trying to find him, but who are being hunted down en route to prevent them reaching him. The past begins to rear its head once more and Fitz will soon find that, even after all these years, danger can still strike too close to home.

The rest of the post goes into more detail, with some spoilers, so I strongly advise you only carry on if you've already read the book (and then I hope you'll tell me what you make of it all).

Ahem. Now, much as I love Fitz, I've often felt that the Farseer books don't really spark into life until the Fool comes onto the scene. In the present book, this proves to be an issue. If a character is named in the title of the book, and the title of the trilogy, and is name-dropped every couple of chapters, the law of Chekov's Gun states that he has to turn up before the final page. But Hobb cuts it pretty fine. Indeed, even the book's title comes from a conversation that takes place only in the last few pages, rather than reflecting what happens in the story. It's a little misleading, although it does allow Hobb deliberately to toy with our expectations. (This leads to some slightly unconvincing moments: I simply don't believe that Fitz would have mistaken even another White for the Fool for any length of time.)

The main divergence from the spirit of the earlier books is the introduction of a second first-person narrator. I grant you: I can hardly complain that this disrupts the flow of the story when I enjoyed the interplay between two first-person narrators in Doctrine of Labyrinths, but it's a slightly different case. If we were starting with entirely new characters it wouldn't bother me at all as long as it made sense. However, what I've always loved so much about the Farseer books is that we get to immerse ourselves so deeply in Fitz's own mind. It's the contrast between what he does and what he feels that gives the books their deep emotional charge. And this was weakened by the introduction of Bee's chapters, especially towards the end, when I felt that she was taking over as narrator from Fitz. I really don't want that to happen. ('I'm losing him!!!' I scrawled in my notes at the time.) While I understand that it will be useful to have a narrator in the 'other place' as we go into the second book, I have a strong dislike of precocious child characters. One of the strengths of Assassin's Apprentice was that Fitz was looking back at his childhood and so we didn't really need a plausibly childlike narration. Bee, however, sounds far too grown up even though we're meant to accept that she's intellectually and emotionally advanced for her age. For me, she feels slightly more like a plot device than a real person: a way to kick off a new narrative arc. (And, for heaven's sake, why has no one twigged that she's a White Prophet? You'd have thought that Fitz, of all people, would have noticed that.) Furthermore, of course, I slightly resent Bee because she promises to become a bit of a third wheel in my favourite fictional partnership and I really don't want anything to change the dynamic which made the earlier books shine.

Fitz himself hasn't changed that much and, actually, the fact that he hasn't is significant. Perhaps I wasn't concentrating in the earlier books, but I hadn't realised that one of the effects of his Skill-healing would be to slow down the aging process. This gets over the problems I'd anticipated in having an older protagonist, because it means that although Fitz is technically in his fifties by the end of the book, he's got the looks, energy and abilities of someone twenty years younger. (Perhaps that's just to reassure any readers who prefer not to have well-seasoned fantasy heroes?) Something I did find odd is that he doesn't make more of an effort to follow up on the thwarted messengers at an earlier stage. From what we've seen of him in the past, we know that he's committed to his friends and I don't think it likely that he would just sit back and puzzle about the fact that the Fool might be in trouble. Admittedly, now that the Skill print on his wrist has gone, there isn't much he can do... But I spent the first six books shouting at him for being an idiot because he goes blundering into fragile situations like a bull in a china shop, while here, by contrast, I sometimes felt he was being an idiot for not doing enough. Needless to say, once the Fool arrives, it's as if nothing has changed between them, although I wonder how long Hobb can preserve the delicate balance she built up in The Tawny Man. There were points in this novel where she almost seemed to be parodying her own elusiveness, as Fitz keeps being forced to deny pointed questions from other characters about his 'closeness' to his old friend. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am not remotely surprised she bans fan-fiction.

So now, waiting for the second book (!), I feel slightly in limbo. This first instalment was a little bit of a disappointment. It felt overly padded out with scene-setting and minutiae, and things took a long time to get going, much as they did in the meandering Rain Wild Chronicles. Yet I still trust Hobb. I hope that, in book two, we'll be off on an adventure again and that she will return to the tightly-plotted, rich and emotionally convincing style of writing which made her earlier Farseer books such a joy. I must emphasise, of course, that this is only my opinion. I've already spotted some glowing reviews on LibraryThing: no doubt we'll see many more reviews coming out when the book is published, and many of them will be very good, because people will understandably just be delighted to have Fitz and the Fool back again. For me, however, it's important to acknowledge the teething problems.

Fellow Hobb readers: please do let me know what you think of the novel when you get round to it. Am I being overly blinkered and resistant to change? Is it a mistake to want the Farseer books to continue in much the same spirit as the earlier novels? Or do you agree with some of the concerns I've mentioned above? I would be grateful to know what others think. So far I feel rather troubled that I can't love this as much as I desperately wanted to. Of course, if anyone would like to drop me an email to discuss the plot in more detail, with no need to worry about spoilers, I will be more than happy to dissect the book with you!

Oh, and just in case you feel there isn't enough angst in this volume, we finish with a promise that we're about to embark on the darkest period of Fitz's life. Which, knowing Fitz, is saying something.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.

Robin Hobb's novels:

The Farseer Trilogy
Book II: Royal Assassin
Book III: Assassin's Quest

The Liveship Traders

Book I: Ship of Magic
Book II: The Mad Ship
Book III: Ship of Destiny

The Tawny Man

Book I: Fool's Errand
Book II: The Golden Fool
Book III: Fool's Fate

The Rain Wild Chronicles

Book II: Dragon Haven
Book III: City of Dragons
Book IV: Blood of Dragons

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