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January 28, 2011 8:54 pm
When Italian castrati arrived in Handel’s London in the early 18th century, trailing the pleasures of fame, riches and (safe) sex, they took the city by storm. Something of the same frenzy now attends the counter-tenors who are their musical descendants. When two leading countertenors of the moment, Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl, made their joint appearance at the Barbican in London last month, the packed hall exuded both high excitement and intense curiosity as to how these gilded creatures – never heard in recital together before – would compare.
“Andreas’s sound is more like a man, while mine is more like a child,” Jaroussky tells me. Then he launches into a definition of what he believes draws people to the countertenor voice, and particularly his brand: “Something pure and without sex, or perhaps between the sexes – they can forget they have a man in front of them. Countertenors possess a childlike quality. An innocence, something airy and angelic. I try in my singing to keep something intact from my childhood.”
The vocal tradition of which the 32-year-old Frenchman is the latest representative has seen many vicissitudes. In the 17th century, Purcell wrote for countertenors but for him the word denoted not a voice but a range. It often meant a tenor extending his normal register upwards by going into falsetto. When the castrati arrived, the male falsetto voice was banished into the churches, where it remained for two centuries until Michael Tippett chanced to hear Alfred Deller singing in Canterbury cathedral choir in the 1950s and launched him as a concert artist. When Benjamin Britten created the role of Oberon for Deller in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1960, he brought an entirely new sound to opera, although countertenors in popular music – think of barbershop quartets or the Beach Boys – have their own long history.
Deller’s voice had a disembodied ethereality but his evident physical unease made him a hopeless actor. Only when the swashbuckling, clarion-toned James Bowman took over the part of Oberon was the operatic incarnation of this voice truly established, with Philip Glass seizing on it for the lead in his opera Akhnaten (1983).
Countertenor styles began to proliferate, first in Europe and then, with great enthusiasm, in America, where David Daniels set a benchmark with his unashamedly feminine sensuality of sound. Meanwhile Scholl – a Clark Kent lookalike from Wiesbaden – was riveting audiences with a timbre of preternatural purity. Jaroussky’s speciality is a light, bright sweetness, compounded by an attractive and often comic stage presence.
Not all countertenors are falsettists: some, such as the American Russell Oberlin, use their natural “chest” voice. But to begin at all, each must find his own evolutionary path through virgin vocal territory. Daniels only discovered his metier after failing as a tenor; Britain’s current frontrunner Iestyn Davies found his voice by accident, while taking a break from singing bass in his school choir. Jaroussky’s amazing aptitude also came out of the blue. Born and brought up in Paris, he won a school singing competition at 12, at which time he had an embryonic tenor voice.
“That,” he says, “was the first time I stood on stage, and I immediately liked the feeling.” But there was also something else: “When I was 15, I sometimes sang along with recordings of Maria Callas and at the same pitch. Just as a joke. But it was easy for me and also a pleasure.”
He had seen Gérard Corbiau’s 1994 film Farinelli, about the life of a famous Italian castrato, but he was 18 before he first heard a countertenor, Fabrice di Falco, singing live. “And that was when I knew I wanted to do this. I didn’t choose my voice for career reasons – I chose it because it was my best way to express myself through music, because it felt comfortable. I could imagine myself in Fabrice di Falco’s place, so I met his teacher Nicole Fallien, who became my teacher and still is after 14 years. She is my second mother.”
What does she give him? His reply comes quickly in his heavily accented English: “She has an amazing ear. We always try to keep a natural sound, very free. Though I can do opera, I don’t really have an operatic voice. I have not a big voice, and she prevents me forcing it, saying, ‘Do not try to be bigger than you are.’ Now, after two hours, I still feel I am singing like a bird. Many voices make a lot of noise when you are close, but not from far, but I think I have a good focus, which carries.”
A rigorous perfectionism explains why he’s never satisfied with his (critically acclaimed) recordings, and why he will never realise his dream of singing the title role in Ariodante, which in his view is the most beautiful thing Handel ever wrote for a castrato. “I can’t get the quality the alto castrati must have had, so I must leave that role to beautiful female voices like Joyce DiDonato. I may be able to sing one aria in my bathroom but the whole thing on stage is something else.”
He spends a lot of time researching forgotten music in libraries, and his disc of castrato arias by the Venetian composer Antonio Caldara is the latest fruit of these labours. He has formed his own instrumental group, Ensemble Artaserse, to share the explorations. But he’s not confining his attentions to the baroque: Opium is his trail-blazing disc of art songs written for mezzos in the French belle époque. Meanwhile, the French composer Suzanne Giraud is writing an opera about Caravaggio in which he will star.
Jaroussky’s manner is so unassuming that it’s easy to forget what a celebrity he has become. The marketing images on his CDs – wild boy, or satanic, or simperingly seductive – are designed to stoke the excitement surrounding him on the internet. He affects, slightly implausibly, not to be familiar with the gay blogs that follow his progress. On the other hand, he enjoys the attentions of his serious fans, particularly the Japanese who follow him round the globe, and he likes to get to know them. Most are women in their forties and fifties: “I seem to awaken their maternal instincts.” When they bring their husbands along, it’s often a different story: “Middle-aged men can find countertenors repulsive, an affront to nature. I love the way we polarise people’s reactions.”
But the reaction that gives him most satisfaction is that of James Bowman, countertenordom’s benign godfather. In Bowman’s view, Jaroussky “sounds like the boy Bach would have loved to write for”. That says it all.
Philippe Jaroussky’s latest CD is ‘Caldara in Vienna’ (Virgin Classics)
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