When the English diarist John Evelyn visited the Teatro Novissimo in Venice in 1645 he recorded his impressions of the opera he saw there, Ercole in Lidia by Giovanni Rovetta. He was clearly fascinated by the scenery and stage machines but made no mention of the plot, while his interest in the music was focused squarely on the singers who performed it. He referred to ‘an incomparable Base’ and to ‘Anna Rencia [Renzi] a Roman, & reputed the best treble of Women’. He added, however, that ‘there was an Eunuch, that in my opinion surpass’d her’.
This concert from Il Pomo d’Oro, directed from the harpsichord by Francesco Corti, focused on arias that eunuchs, or more specifically a star castrato, would have sung. Many developments in the evolution of the aria derived from the express intention of making them engaging vehicles for showcasing the talents of singers, and even in the seventeenth century they were often taken out of context and performed in concerts. Despite much research having gone into the subject, and the recordings made by Moreschi when he was past his prime, no-one knows for certain how a castrato would have sounded. On hearing countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, however, it was possible to imagine them sounding as he did, since through his undisputed command of the music he succeeded in conveying a total feeling of authenticity.
A host of contradictions would seem to lie at the heart of this countertenor, and yet together they make up a brilliant whole. He seems at complete ease on the stage, even as the precision he achieves must mean his brain is working at breakneck speed. One might imagine that the heavenly qualities in his sound could only be achieved on long, soaring notes and yet they come to the fore just as strongly in the most complex of lines. Similarly, the top of his register is so ethereal that it is hard to picture the same voice proving equally accomplished in the middle and bottom of its range.
The arias performed included masterpieces from Cavalli, Handel and Hasse as well as from some lesser known composers. They formed the backbone to Orliński’s newly released album Facce d’amore and helped to reveal all of the different facets to his voice. For example, his sound in ‘Erme e solinghe cime’ and ‘Lucidissima face’ from Cavalli’s La Calisto was so pure it felt almost ghostly. In ‘Chi scherza con Amor’ from Giovanni Antonio Boretti’s Eliogabalo of 1668, on the other hand, he revealed a more fiery side to his voice, even while he achieved the multiple repetition of vowel sounds in words such as ‘foco’ with pinprick precision.
In ‘Finché Salvo è l’Amor Suo’ from Luca Antonio Predieri’s Scipione il giovane of 1731 his sound revealed a sense of gentle contentment at the start, in keeping with the words. Then in the second stanza, which refers to a hurricane threatening a woman’s love for him, things became more stormy. Nevertheless, he grew softer and more empathetic again towards the end of it as he referred to feeling her pain, while the conclusion to the aria saw him adopt the most ethereal tone imaginable. As a vehicle for revealing different moods and ‘modes’ of his voice, however, nothing could beat ‘Ah Stigie larve!’ and ‘Vaghe pupille’ from Handel’s Orlando, which ended the first half of the evening.
Highlights of the second included his performance of ‘Odio, vendetta, amore’ from Francesco Bartolomeo Conti’s Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena of 1719. The first three words take us through different emotions as they are ‘Hatred, revenge, love’, as do the following three, ‘resentment, reason, duty’, and Orliński’s technique enabled him to bring out all of the associated contrasts to the full. ‘Che m’ami to prega’ from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini and Johann Mattheson’s Nerone of 1721-23, which ended the main programme, also enabled the brilliance in all of his registers to come to the fore.
Although Orliński’s performances were superlative, the overall impression left would not have been so strong had the support of Il Pomo d’Oro not been so accomplished. The ensemble was also given the opportunity to shine its own right in several solely instrumental pieces, including the ‘Ballo dei Bagatellieri’ from Don Chisciotte in Sierra Morena. Orliński and Il Pomo d’Oro ended up giving four encores, but that was partly because when the countertenor offered the audience a choice of two for what was supposedly his last, he was met with cries of ‘both’. Given what had just been heard during this extraordinary evening, it was an entirely understandable response.
Jakub Józef Orliński’s new album Facce d’amore, from which the arias in this concert were drawn, is available on the Erato label.