I liked Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli’s 2007 debut recital CD for its freak factor. At the time, it was particularly unique for containing the only countertenor interpretation of Mozart’s showpiece aria Parto, ma tu ben mio from La Clemenza di Tito. (Now we have a Maniaci version, and I am sure more will follow.) Fagioli had won the prestigious German singing competition, Neue Stimmen, in 2003, and the Arte Nova release of Mozart and Handel arias was part of his victory lap. I liked it but I didn’t love it. The voice was exciting and showed a great technique, but apart from a few phrases here and there, Fagioli didn’t put his stamp on this oft recorded repertory. I enthusiastically attended his US operatic debut last year in the Chicago Opera Theater production of Cavalli’s Giasone. Too bad the opera was monody-heavy and offered little opportunity for displays of range or virtuosity. It was fine, but in retrospect, not the best vehicle for what I now realize is a groundbreaking talent.
Fagioli’s new recital disc, inconspicuously titled Canzone e Cantate, heralds the arrival of a world-class artist. This is an instant classic… a must-have. Canzone e Cantate is a recording for fans of countertenors, the Italian baroque, continuo bands, bel canto vocal pyrotechnics, and especially for fans of Cecilia Bartoli. You read correctly – Cecilia Bartoli. I thought that my iPod was on the fritz when I started listening to the first track of Canzone e Cantate, that I had accidentally selected Cecilia Bartoli Live in Italy, which also starts with early Italian lute songs. Fagioli, on this recording, sounds remarkably similar to La Ceci.
Compare the first phrases of the opening track of Canzone e Cantate, Frescobaldi’s Se l’aura spira, with the Caccini madrigale Al fonte, al prato as performed by Bartoli.
Notice the same creamy tone with that backbone of acid. I mean to say that they each possess a voice of warmth with a compact vibrato, but that there is a bright core – a beam of sunlight with a squeeze of sweet lemon juice. Both Bartoli and Fagioli’s basic tone quality is like Champagne (or to keep it Italian, one should say Franciacorta): A generous, frothy mousse that balances a zingy, racy juice. To compare Fagioli’s voice to hers is a true compliment, and the similarity does not end at the tone quality. They also share ideas about phrasing, a few technical idiosyncrasies, and a particular approach to Italian declamation. Those of you who have listened to Bartoli’s discs as many times as I have will notice those same spicy rolled r’s, that penchant for a breathy pianissimo, the use of straight tone as an ornament (especially in appoggiaturas and harmonic suspensions), those extra forward placed ah’s to express tenderness, and most obviously, the coloratura technique. Gran Dio! What coloratura they have! Some people like to say “machine gun.” I reject that; guns are always a menace. While such insanely accurate, evenly spaced, highly articulated singing could evoke something mechanical, I find it here to be more like happy children blowing soap bubbles: Aggressive in intent, graceful in outcome.
The program is as intelligent as the singing. Fagioli and his small continuo band survey a swath of Italian song from the dawn of Baroque monody to the height of the Virtuoso Cantata, and three instrumental selections both keep the pace and allow the listener moments of respite. As the title suggests, there are two basic sections to this recording: Canzone (Songs) and Cantate (Cantatas). The CD begins with five lute songs, the perfect number to maintain interest without becoming monotonous. The Frescobaldi is a fine and docile opener, all breezes and nymphs, and passes the baton to the surprising Ecco di dolci raggi by Monteverdi – a song that similarly invokes the pastoral but catches fire at the word arda. There the harpsichord’s first plucked chord enters – a signpost at that musical moment – and we are treated to the first of many coloratura jags captured on this album. The climax of this set is the middle selection – a chaconne by Benedetto Ferrari (1603-1681) that fully displays all of the talent on hand. The entire ensemble seems to be having so much fun in this dance number that the ornaments flow like wine; it is a joyful piece that builds and retreats like a perfect messa di voce. In fact, the whole program seems to be crafted in that shape. The five lute songs lead to a lute solo before the first of three cantatas. Each of these cantatas is similarly separated by instrumental selections. The first of the cantatas, Handel’s Aure soavi e lieti (HWV 84), explores a tranquil, graceful affectation. Lots of legato singing here seasoned with just the right amount of blanche tones and over-brightened vowels.
Vivaldi’s cantata, Pianti, sospiri a dimandar (RV 676) is the highlight of the hour long recording, and the piece you will want to replay for its own sake. Fagioli’s reading of it trumps recent versions by two of my other favorite singers, Philippe Jarrousky and Sara Mingardo (her fireworks start at 7:15):
This is a mini-Vivaldi opera masquerading as a cantata and should be required study for countertenors, especially you budding Tolomeos. The first of its two arias Lusinga è del nocchier seems to borrow the basso continuo line from Tolomeo’s Act II arioso Belle dee from Handel’s Giulio Cesare. It is a beautiful exploration of an ardent affectation in the style of one of Handel’s best continuo arias, inviting a highly ornamented da capo. The second, a rage aria titled Cor ingrato dispietato, is peppered with plenty of spezzati and jagged coloratura – Tolomeo in a nutshell. Fagiloli’s performance here is a ravishing display of technique. His warmer tone makes him more menacing than pretty-boy Jarroussky, and his rapid vibrato speed makes him sound more passionate than the cool Italian contralto, Mingardo. It is easy to forget that Fagioli is a countertenor with dips into his chest voice smoothed over like the best modal bel canto specialists – those abundant coloratura mezzos. The program’s last major work takes us back to Handel, exploring the affectations of grace and pleasure, and the sweet pain of Love in Dolc’è pur d’amor l’affanno (HWV 109). After the Vivaldi, this double-aria cantata is a great way to cool down. Lutenist Luca Pianca almost steals the show in the first aria’s da capo, filling in the spaces with so many licks – like flower buds spontaneously sprouting on the vine of the melody.
Throughout, the tiny continuo band of three is impressive (in addition to Mr. Pianca, they are Marco Frezzato, cellist, and Jörg Halubek, harpsichordist). I am grateful for the instrumental selections that separate the cantatas on this recording – filling out a solo recital disc with non-vocal works is a recent trend. In our era of fewer and fewer commercial recordings being made, I can understand these musicians’ desire to document their careers. Unfortunately, the liner notes do not detail the instruments on hand. A quick perusal of Mr. Pianca’s discography reveals that he also plays theorbo and archlute. Session photos show him holding a 12-course lute. If this is the only instrument he uses here, we should all have one – it is a tiny orchestra and Luca Pianca plays every part con sprezzatura.
Fagioli’s encore selection is the Paisiello aria we all learned from Twenty-four Italian Arias, Nel cor più non mi sento! The several variations Fagioli offers here push the boundaries of taste and invite further comparison to Bartoli, who also recorded this early in her career. After the athletic and artistic feats accomplished on this disc, he deserves our indulgence; this is an impossibly masterful display of all his skills. It is his quaruple toe loop/triple toe loop combo: thrilling in that it is unnecessary for the win.