Notes and Editorial Reviews
Handel’s opera Faramondo (Pharamond), still rarely performed, is set in 5th century France. The title role, a mythical king, is taken by Zagreb-born countenor Max Emanuel Cencic, an alumnus of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, who took a starring role in Virgin Classics’ recent DVD of Landi’s Sant’Alessio and in September 2007 released a thrilling recital of virtuoso Rossini arias. On stage he has performed a number of Handel operas: Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Fernando and Serse (written shortly after Faramondo). The other star countertenor on this recording is Philippe Jaroussky, whose Virgin Classics album Carestini – The Story of a Castrato included arias by Handel and who was recently named Singer of the Year in Germany’s Echo Klassik awards.
This production of Faramondo is probably unique in recording history – and maybe also in the performing history of Handel’s operas since the 18th century. It finally gives us a complete recording of a Handel opera with men singing all the male characters cast for singers with high voices: Phillippe Jaroussky in the soprano role of Faramondo’s son, Adolfo; Xavier Sabata in the dramatic alto role of the vicious King Gernando, and Max Emanuel Cencic in the mezzo soprano role of Faramondo. At the opera’s first performances in London in 1738, Faramondo was sung by the star castrato Caffarelli, but the other two parts were sung by women dressed as men, since Handel could not afford to pay for additional castrati, who were the highest-paid stars of the day. Since then, women have generally been engaged to sing the highest male roles in Handel operas, with countertenors often being allocated the characters with music in the alto range. As with female singers, there were alto, mezzo soprano and soprano castrati. Until recently, countertenors have tended to take the lower-lying roles that Handel and other Baroque composers wrote for castrati. Now, a growing number of countertenors also sing in the mezzo and soprano ranges. Cencic, Jaroussky and Sabata are part of this generation of ‘operatic countertenors’ who can provide the vocal agility and range of colour which have perhaps been more readily associated with the female voice. Beyond the countertenors, there are talented young singers in all the other roles: the Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser (already featured in the Virgin Classics catalogue in Haydn’s Creation with William Christie), who has a pure, but vibrant sound; two Italians – powerful mezzo Marina de Liso and expressive bass-baritone Fulvio Bettini; In-Sung Sim from South Korea, a basso profundo who can sing superb coloratura and Swiss-born Terry Wey, another young countertenor (he is just 23) and also a former member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, who takes the role of Childerico, sung in Handel’s time by a boy treble. Diego Fasoli, also from Switzerland, conducts his orchestra I Barocchisti. Le Monde, describing their Handel, has written of “ a tonal subtlety and a palette of emotional colour that compel admiration ... While being lively and playful, it is never aggressive or superficial."
R E V I E W S:
Diego Fasolis, cond; Max Emanuel Cencic (
); Philippe Jaroussky (
); Sophie Karthäuser (
); Marina de Liso (
); In-Sung Kim (
); Xavier Sabata (
); Fulvio Bettini (
); Lugano Swiss R Ch; I Barocchisti (period instruments)
VIRGIN 16611 (3 CDs: 166:08
Text and Translation)
Verdi and Handel both set a few librettos that suffered from an identical failing. Verdi wanted plays and novels tailored to suit his libretto needs; Handel wanted older librettos meant for a different culture and time altered in the same fashion. Each composer insisted on the ruthless cutting of what he conceived to be extraneous material. This sometimes resulted in stage action that made little sense, and characters whose motivations were cloudy at best.
From a theatrical standpoint, Handel’s
is a fine example of this over-zealous concentration. The same libretto, as set by Gasparini in 1720, included 1,240 lines of recitative, for a total of 34 arias, four duets, and a chorus. Handel’s version, reworked by a nameless writer, reduced the recitatives to a mere 540 lines. These were meant to provide all the dramatic connective tissue surrounding 22 arias, four duets, and two choruses. It should also be noted that Gasparini’s own version of
eliminated the first six scenes of Zeno’s original libretto. Handel thus imposed an additional level of incomprehensibility on top of what was already a confusing work whose plot started, thanks to Gasparini, in progress.
But there are other problems relating to construction: sudden exits, where arias would seem to be called for. Simile arias occurring in illogical places that hold up the action in the final act. A last minute solution to the over-arching theme of vengeance that begins with act I, involving—of all things—the sudden arrival of a note at the end of act III indicating that two infants were switched in their cradles by a character who doesn’t appear in the opera and makes a convenient deathbed confession. Shades of
H. M. S. Pinafore
; I suppose if this hackneyed idea was ever fresh, it was during the Baroque, but even with that taken into account we’re left with a theatrical Gordian knot that has to be solved at the last minute by a
tabella ex machina
. In a more lucid work one might be disposed to be charitable, but not in
. It is bad plotting that irritates when added to other problems.
Handel borrowed ideas liberally from other composers throughout his lengthy career, but
goes further than most. John Roberts identified 17 arias and both duets as dependent upon content from Pistocchi’s
La forza della virtù
, and Scarlatti’s
. He also discovered that the minuet section of the overture was based on a similarly placed movement in Porpora’s
. Reinhard Strohm noted 10 other borrowings from Gasparini’s
. None of these amount to plagiarism, given Handel’s distinctive treatment of the materials he appropriated, but their appearance in such quantity may mean the composer was not in top creative form, or perhaps distributing his energies too widely. The composer’s quickly arranged agreement in mid 1737 with John Jacob Heidegger, manager of the King’s Theater, Haymarket, to produce two new operas and a
shortly after taking a six-week bath cure for a mild stroke, could be seen as a case of too much, too soon.
also gives the impression, unusual in Handel, of being assembled at least in part in patchwork fashion. The emotional ambience of arias doesn’t always fit the situations and words that they are meant to mirror. One instance is Gernando’s “Non ingannarmi, no,” a private plea for perseverance after his love, Rosimonda, has just accused him of treachery, and fled. Handel sets this aria to a bouncy, somewhat upbeat tune. Or again, there’s Faramondo’s “Se ben mi lusinga,” another aria sung with no one present, in which complete disillusionment is reflected by—yet another bouncy, upbeat tune. A number of other arias are simply not distinguished example’s of Handel’s art, including Clotilde’s pair of blank-faced, chirpy act-I pieces, and Gernando’s “Nella terra” that Winton Dean in his
shrewdly nails as rumbling “along in the manner of Sullivan’s Handel parody in
So why bother listening to
at all, with so many strikes against it? The answer is that there’s a good deal of top-drawer music in the opera, notably so once past the first act. The eponymous hero may be a wimp who exists largely to give a repeat get-out-of-jail card to his enemies, but his solos are all excellent, particularly “Voglio che sia l’indegno” from act III. Clotilde’s later arias are equally fine, with “Combattuta da due venti,” a simile piece about a ship thrust about between two winds, indulging in some vibrant tone-painting that briefly recalls the sound world of Vivaldi. Rosimonda’s “Sì, l’intendesti” is a first-rate vengeance aria, while Adolfo’s “Se a’piedi tuoi morrò” is in the composer’s best love-struck, heartsick manner. Gustavo’s “Sol la brama di vendetta,” another, darker-hued vengeance aria, is one of Handel’s better ones, suggesting power and intrigue in its piled suspensions and fast moving counterpoint. The Overture is one of his best, as well, delivered here by I Barocchisti with verve and clarity. If the best things in
set a standard that was equaled by the rest, libretto to one side, it would fit comfortably alongside
Ariodante, Serse, Giulio Cesare, Tamerlano, Rodelinda
as the best the composer produced.
The cast is a mixed one, more vocally successful than theatrically so. De Liso’s soprano-inflected mezzo reveals a firm voice with a rich tone. She handles divisions and coloratura with ease, and conveys both a general and word-based sense of drama. Next to these assets, her tendency to turn long
s might seem like nitpicking, but it requires notice. “Sospiro” becomes “sospiruh” as de Liso sings it, “Il mio dolor,” “Uhl mi-uh dolor,” and “Più ti miro,” “Più tuh mir-uh.” Karthäuser is almost as good—would be as good, if not for her “Conoscerò, se brami” which is over-pressured and employs sketchy coloratura. Yet “Mi parto lieta sulla tua fede” is both lighter and far better, especially in the beautiful tone she imparts to its central section in the relative minor. Equally fine is her “Combattuta da due venti,” already mentioned, with first-rate runs. Presumably the recording sessions, spread over a week in October last year, caught Karthäuser once in less than best voice. For the rest, she certainly displays a fine, bright tone and a good theatrical sense.
Among the countertenors, Jaroussky comes off best. At the risk of being accused of hyperbole, his “Chi ben ama, ogn’altro affetto” is an object lesson in cleanly articulated figures, just as “Se a’piedi tuoi morrò” is for vocal shading. Cencic is both wonderful and frustrating. A remarkable technician with superior enunciation and perfectly even production, he never inflects the vocal line to provide the slightest hint of emotion. He is perhaps at his best in “Poi che prima di morire,” expressing uniform happiness at having seen his love before his execution. Handel supplies a noble melody, and Cencic delivers it with firm tone. Sabata occupies a lower plane than these two. His voice is dull, and sounds as though formed completely at the back of his palette. He sports good breath support and divisions, but poor enunciation—and the way he abandons the melody in “Voglio che mora, sì” to loudly grumble a line left me wondering what he was trying to achieve.
For the rest, Bettini’s thin baritone has trouble making itself heard in his uninteresting aria, “Vado a recar la morte,” while Kim produces a strong, dark bass, used with facility, and offering admirable enunciation. His “Sol la brama di vendetta,” sung with panache, features a solid deep D?, and a high G? in baritonal territory that is only slightly less good—shades of Mark Reizen.
Finally, I have nothing but praise for I Barocchisti and their conductor, Diego Fasolis. He serves up some of the finest Handel this side of Alan Curtis. Taut, rhythmically buoyant, and sensitive to his singers’ needs, this is Baroque conducting that sounds unerringly right. The ensemble is top notch: not flashy, but solid, and always capable of surmounting whatever difficulty may lie in its way.
Overall, then, I’d call this performance of
a considerable success. It makes as fine a case for this opera as we’re likely ever to hear, in a medium that lets us ignore one of the most incoherent plots ever set to music. Thumbs up on this, and let’s hope for more from Fasolis and I Barocchisti soon.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Faramondo is not one of Handel’s best known operas though it is one of the latter, composed just before the more famous
Serse. It was first performed on 3 January 1738 at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in London; there were a total of eight performances and it was never revived. The first modern production took place in Halle, Germany, in 1976.
Faramondo was Handel’s only libretto by Zeno but it was cut to such a degree that, even today, it is rendered a little incomprehensible.
The plot is based on the story of Pharamond, a mythological King of France, in the 5
th Century AD. The opera begins with Gustavo, King of the Cimbrians, taking an oath to avenge the death of his young son Sveno at the hands of Faramondo, King of the Franks. Teobaldo, Gustavo’s captain, brings in Clotilde, Faramondo’s sister, who has been taken captive. She should be killed, as Faramondo’s relative, but Gustavo is taken by a sudden passion for her and orders her release. In the meantime, Gustavo’s surviving son, Adolfo, who is in love with Clotilde, promises to defend her brother rather than kill him, as he has sworn to do, and so prove his devotion to her. In the meantime, Rosimonda, Gustavo’s daughter, is under attack from Faramondo’s soldiers and is then opportunely saved by Faramondo himself. Predictably, they fall in love, which is not only against their political and family loyalties but, for Faramondo, it brings an additional problem: He is now a rival of his ally, Gernando, King of the Swabians, who is also in love with Rosimonda, and swears to win her heart and get rid of his former friend. This is all very complicated! There are then two unsuccessful attempts on Faramondo’s life: the second time he is protected by Rosimonda herself who sends him to her apartment. But this would all be too straightforward! So, enter Teobaldo, Gustavo’s captain, who tries to gain admittance to Rosimonda’s rooms because he wants to avenge Sveno, who, as it turned out, was really his son and not Gustavo’s. Faramondo eventually rescues Gustavo from defeat at the hands of Gernando and Teobaldo, who became allies, and generously offers his own life to end the fighting. Adolfo tries to intervene in Faramondo’s favour but his father is obviously displeased and imprisons him; however he is also impressed with Faramondo’s attitude. He feels though that he cannot go back on his oath and must avenge the death of his son Sveno. Gustavo is about to kill Faramondo when he is interrupted by a letter from Teobaldo, which reveals the truth: he confesses that he exchanged Gustavo’s son for his own, at birth, so that Sveno could inherit the throne. It turns out that Childerico, believed to be Teobaldo’s son, is actually Gustavo’s. Confusing? Well, yes but everything will soon end in perfect, clear harmony. So, the young man that was killed was Sveno who was in reality Teobaldo’s child. Therefore, Faramondo has never committed a crime against Gustavo’s family. All’s well that ends well! The opera closes with a happy ending. Adolfo and Clotilde remain together, Gustavo realises his mistake and Rosimonda is united with Faramondo, who then praises the victory of generosity over hatred.
Once one gets over the complications of the plot, there is actually some interesting music, several really good arias and a couple of rather pretty duets. If one thinks about other operas by Handel,
Faramondo compares unfavourably through a lack of fluidity in the musical and dramatic narratives. There are some wonderful moments: all of Adolfo’s arias in general and in particular in Act I, Scene 4,
Chi ben ama, beautifully sung by Philippe Jaroussky in his inimitable, luminous tone and high flights of
coloratura. Then there is Rosimonda’s aria in Act II, Scene 2,
Sì, l’intendesti, sì, fabulously executed by Marina di Liso and a perfect vehicle for her colourful mezzo and amazing range. Finally I should mention all the arias for Faramondo, especially his final aria with chorus,
Virtù, che rende, wonderfully performed by Max Emanuel Cencic, perhaps the greatest revelation in this recording, with an unusually rich, melodic tone for a counter-tenor. Two other moments of great beauty are undoubtedly the duets of Faramondo and Rosimonda, at the end of Act II,
Vado e vivo con la speranza; and of Clotilde and Adolfo in Act III, Scene 2,
Caro, cara, tu m’accendi. Each is supremely sung by Cencic and de Liso, and Jaroussky and Karthäuser respectively.
The outstanding performances in this recording are to my mind those by Cencic, in the title role; Jaroussky as Adolfo and de Liso as Rosimonda. The role of Faramondo was originally written for the famous castrato Cafarelli - whose real name was Gaetano Majorano and like the celebrated Farinelli was a student of Nicola Porpora. His voice is said to have been similar to that of a mezzo-soprano with a high
tessitura and an extensive range, which is more or less how one could describe Cencic’s voice. It fits the role perfectly. He eloquently displays his range and virtuosity. Adolfo was originally written for a soprano but Jaroussky’s crystal-clear, crisp, high and pure counter-tenor vividly brings the young prince to life, expressively depicting his passions and conflicts. Rosimonda was composed for an alto; de Liso’s mezzo possesses some wonderfully dark tones in the lower range and these enable her to sing the role in a very effective manner. Her voice is not only beautiful but also unusual, ranging from a low contralto to very warm and easy high notes.
The other singers are all very good and deliver solid performances, notably Sophie Karthäuser as Clotilde and Xaxier Sabata as Gernando. I reserve special mention for In-Sung Sim as Gustavo, with his pleasing, grave bass. As is often the case, in operas of the Baroque Period, in
Faramondo there is also an excess of high voices: four counter-tenors, one soprano and one mezzo. Counter-tenors were not known in Handel’s time, so the composer wrote the title role for a castrato, Clotilde and Adolfo for sopranos, Rosimonda and Gernando for altos and Childerico for a treble. Invariably, nowadays, counter-tenors take the leading roles for the castrati and sometimes the male roles that were written for women’s voices. This is fine in itself but what occasionally happens, particularly on a CD, is that if one is not following the libretto closely and is not familiar with Italian, one is left wondering who is who and if it is a male or a female character singing during a particular moment in the disc. This happens many times in this recording with the exception of the performances by Cencic, Jaroussky and de Liso because they have very distinctive voices. At some stage, I felt tired of listening to so many “feminine” voices and found myself longing for a clear and sensual tenor sound. The bass of Sim, as Gustavo, and the baritone of Bettini as Teobaldo offer some “relief” but their roles are too grave and deep, making a contrast that is often excessively heavy.
I Barocchisti and the Coro della Radio Svizzera under the excellent direction of Diego Fasolis deliver a remarkably well-judged and restrained interpretation of this opera by Handel. They perform in an understated yet expressive manner, enhancing every bar of Handel’s music, effectively carrying the soloists’ voices but never overwhelming them or forgetting the composer’s dramatic intention. It is only the second time that I have heard I Barocchisti and they did not disappointment me; on the contrary they far exceeded my expectations. It was the first time that I have listened to the Coro della Radio Svizzera and I am happy to write that they were a pleasing revelation.
Finally, all there is left for me to say is that this 3-CD set is really an excellent, solid recording of one of Handel’s least known operas, with some wonderful singing and effective performances. It is presented in an elegant, stylish package, displaying a beautiful photograph of a forest in the Autumn by Italian photographer Maurizio Blasetti. All in all, a very satisfying and welcome addition to the collection of Handel’s opera recordings.
-- Margarida Mota-Bull, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Faramondo, HWV 39 by George Frideric Handel
Terry Wey (Countertenor),
In-Sung Sin (Voice),
Marina De Liso (Mezzo Soprano),
Sophie Karthäuser (Soprano),
Max Emanuel Cencic (Countertenor),
Fulvio Bettini (Baritone),
Philippe Jaroussky (Countertenor),
Xavier Sabata (Countertenor)
Swiss Radio Chorus,
Written: 1737-1738; London, England
Featured Sound Samples
Faramondo (Handel): Act I: "Sebben mi lusinga"
Act III: "Così suole a rio vicina"
Act III: "Se ria procella"
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