Venice Baroque, directed by Andrea Marcon, backs Philippe Jaroussky in arias written for the baroque castrato, Farinelli. In two tracks, Jaroussky is joined by Cecilia Bartoli, who it must be said, already explored this repertoire in her own release, Sacrificium with another Italian ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico.
The cover of the CD confused me; I thought it was Bartoli opposite Jaroussky, but instead, I believe the juxtaposition is of mentor and protege, Farinelli and Jaroussky. The liner notes, partially written by Jaroussky, point further, at exploring the composer Nicholas Antonio Porpora, made famous by the Farinelli legend.
11 tracks are presented, equating to over 70 minutes of music. 7 arias are world premier recordings, which, if you have been collecting Farinelli music as have I, means you have welcome company in other previous releases. As Jaroussky notes, Porpora was not as strong a composer as George Frederick Handel in opera. I find the instrumental aspect of the arias to be where this is most true, but there is definitely some art in the vocal lines that is most certainly worthy study and admiration. In a nutshell, Porpora’s style is light, with expressive melodies, but lacking the depth or counterpoint, say, of arias by Bach. Ultimately it is not difficult to see this music coming to full power combined with the staging, costumes, and visual drama of an opera production. What the music lacks in profundity it makes up for in surface beauty.
Venice Baroque is a supportive ensemble, perhaps sounding their best compared to my memory of earlier recordings. Their dynamic range isn’t as wide, or style as extrovert as Il Giardino Armonico, but that’s not an indictment.
There is something to be said of the duets with Cecilia Bartolli. While both singers may have an interest in this repertoire, and while both have experience singing music from this period, their styles are quite different. Bartoli has much more power and volume to her voice, not to mention a healthy dose of vibrato. In track 4, their duet focuses on tranquil breezes, and in track 6, they share a love duet. The duet is not a disaster, but the two voices pair less successfully than in Jaroussky’s duet album directed by William Christie with Max Emanuel Cencic. Vibrato aside, it’s the lack of carrying power of Jaroussky’s voice against Bartoli’s that creates an unequal balance.
Jaroussky chose a number of pieces that are more modest in tempo and lack the technical fireworks that come with higher reaches of range or violently fast tempos. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my view, as he has chosen pieces that match his voice and abilities well.
While commenters have often pointed out that a countertenor is not the same voice as a castrato, for the more tender pieces, the countertenor voice works well, and Jaroussky is among today’s very best. You’ll see their point in the middle of an example like track 10, where the tempo does pick up, and we can almost imagine a little more strength and power coming out.
Women like Bartoli, or male countertenors (or some, who label themselves as male sopranos) each will have their drawbacks in re-creating a voice type that no longer exists. That should not be the point of any recording, I feel. Instead, and I think this was on the minds of those involved in this recording, we should celebrate the music itself with the best instruments we have today. And for examples like both Bartoli and Jaroussky, they paint different but yet stunning images with their distinct voices.