It was a surprise to learn from Franco Fagioli himself at the end of the concert that this was his first solo recital in the UK. Over the last few years, the Argentinian-born countertenor has built himself a strong reputation as an interpreter of the eighteenth century castrato repertoire, standing alongside the likes of Philippe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic. Indeed, all three collaborated, to much acclaim, on a staged version and recording of Leonardo Vinci’s 1730 opera Artaserse in 2012.
Fagioli was here, in part, to promote his latest album – a collection of arias by Neapolitan composer (and teacher of the legendary Farinelli) Nicola Porpora, which is out later this month. This follows the well-received Arias for Caffarelli, released last year, and puts him in direct competition with Jaroussky, who also brought out a disc of Porpora-Farinelli arias in 2013.
Fagioli does not have a big voice. Even in the warm acoustics of the Wigmore Hall, it sometimes felt restrained. Yet what he lacks in volume, he more than makes up for in subtlety and dramatic intensity. Of course, the unashamedly virtuosic coloratura arias were all on show – like his opening gambit, ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ from Porpora’s Ezio, and his final ‘Spesso di nubi cinto’ from Carlo il Calvo, which ended in a big show off cadenza. But more striking was Fagioli’s handling of the more intense, melancholic numbers, such as ‘Torbido intorno al core’ from Meride e Selinunte. Here, he combined a confident technique with emotional intelligence and an assured understanding of the text. The weaving melisma lines were all intact, and the trills fell in the right places, but it was Fagioli’s ability to hold his notes firmly and expressively with just a hint of vibrato that gave real credibility to his performance.
Fagioli was accompanied by Turin-based Academia Montis Regalis, directed from the harpsichord by Alessandro De Marchi. Both orchestra and conductor appear on the Porpora album, and they perfectly supported Fagioli in this Wigmore debut. Inevitably, much of their orchestral accompaniment to the arias was fairly straightforward, although they were given a place under the spotlight in four concertos by Vivaldi – a contemporary of Porpora, with whom he worked briefly at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà. Of these, the fine Oboe Concerto in F, RV455 and Cello Concerto in C minor RV401 stood out. Cellist Giovanna Barbati gave a particularly fine performance of the curiously (for Vivaldi) melancholy C minor concerto. But it was really Fagioli that the audience had come to hear. After two resplendent Porpora aria encores and a CD signing afterwards, he was finally allowed to go home. But not for too long, we hope.
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org.uk.