Opéra National de Lorraine
La Cage aux Falsettos: Artaserse in Nancy, with Barna-Sabadus, Fagioli, Mynenko and Jaroussky
Marc Antoine/Opéra National de Lorraine 2013
In an astute piece of marketing, the new Virgin Classics recording of Leonardo Vinci's Artaserse has been followed up by a European concert tour of the work, with its five countertenors and one tenor, accompanied by the Concerto Köln under the direction of Diego Fasolis. The honor of a staged performance, directed by Silviu Purcărete, was accorded to Opéra de Lorraine in Nancy, and early-music fans from across Europe gathered for the first performance on November 2.
Born in 1690, Leonardo Vinci was based in Naples, succeeded Alessandro Scarlatti as vice director of the Royal chapel in Naples and was a teacher of Pergolesi's. Thanks to his friendship with Metastasio, Vinci became, alongside his rival Porpora, a pioneer of the Neapolitan opera seria, with special attention to the natural setting of text. Vinci's influence on Handel is clearly heard in Artaserse. Vinci died young in 1730, apparently poisoned by a jealous rival in a love affair that turned sour.
The opera seria provides a feast of Baroque singing. Though the work contains just one duet and a final chorus to set beside the da capo arias, musical interest did not falter with singing of this quality and conviction. Excitement grew in just the way it might have at the time of the castratos, with the audience willing the singers to ever-greater vocal challenges. The vocal display was not an obstacle to discovering the dramatic subtext but a glorious end in itself. The Concerto Köln was in top form under Fasolis, whose sprightly baton and harpsichord interjections had thrilling energy and precision and never dipped into early-music mannerisms.
Nancy's Artaserse was an evening that celebrated the countertenor voice. In the title role, Philippe Jaroussky proved again that he is one of France's leading exponents of this repertoire. His bright, highly placed voice has a light, ethereal quality, and his tapered phrasing and projection of the text were outstanding. Valer Barna-Sabadus has a softer, gentler timbre, which suited the female character of Semira. Barna-Sabadus was well-matched by the more strident tone of Max Emanuel Cencic, whose dramatic and vocal performance was the most fully projected of the evening, in the other female role of Mandane. The Megabise of Yuriy Mynenko fielded the most classic countertenor sound: Mynenko produced fine, muscular singing in his arias.
For sheer Baroque extravagance and virtuosity, none matched the Arbace of Franco Fagioli. This is a unique voice, with a fearsome Clara Butt-style chest register rising though a juicy midrange to a glorious upper extension, which made for thrilling cadenzas and a showstopping rendition of his brilliant Act I aria. The lone tenor among these falsetto stars, Juan Sancho matched them in terms of virtuosity without sounding overpowering as Artabano.
Faced with the convoluted Metastasio story of plotting and poisoning, leading to the triumph of justice — to say nothing of a text set by different composers a startling one hundred and eight times — director Purcărete sensibly chose a detached, tongue-in-cheek production style. The show opened with a backstage scene of preening divas preparing for opening night, accompanied by subservient technicians to facilitate their movement onstage. The studio theater-style design was dominated by Helmut Stürmer's revolving disk and well-chosen Baroque images, as well as his own spectacular costumes. Barna-Sabadus and Cencic, in the two travesty roles, were given dresses of over-the-top feathered splendor, and both singers' deportment combined capricious movement with a wink toward the incongruity of the proposition, to the cheering delight of the capacity audience.
STEPHEN J. MUDGE
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