Early this past year, a new CD release on the Naïve label arrived in my mail. Glancing at the title – Arias for Caffarelli [sung by] Franco Fagioli – I reacted with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, “Good god! Not another countertenor!” And with that, I tossed it, unceremoniously, into a box overflowing with CDs to be auditioned…at a much later date.
But one day –being in a Baroque state of mind – I shuffled through my little box of horrors, found the disc in question and put it on my player. What I heard next stopped me in my tracks. Like the mythical savage beasts tamed by the strains of Orfeo’s lute, I fell sway to the spell of Franco Fagioli’s astonishing voice. Here was a self-assured young man, with a three-octave vocal range who knows every twist and turn in the castrato’s handbook, and who could easily give Cecilia Bartoli or Joyce DiDonato a run for their money.
Franco Fagioli was born in Tucumán, Argentina in 1981. He joined a choir as a boy soprano at age 11 before turning his attention to piano – and eventually to opera. In Buenos Aires he studied bel canto repertoire (including Rossini, Bellini and, Donizetti) before setting off to Europe for further studies as a countertenor. While it is rumoured that Fagioli has also studied with Bartoli’s mother and only teacher, Silvana Bazzoni, we do know for certain that mezzo and countertenor have concertized together.
As it turns out, Fagioli has been on the scene for some time now. His international breakthrough came in 2003, when he won the Bertelsmann Neue Stimmen (New Voices) award in Germany. Since then, he has been increasingly active in opera houses throughout Europe, specializing in 17th and 18th century Italian opera. In April 2010, Fagioli made his North American debut in the title role of Cavalli’s Giasone for the Chicago Opera Theater – so far, his only appearance in North America (which may account for his lack of profile on this side of the Atlantic). But if I were a concert presenter, I would leap at any opportunity to engage him.
Caffarelli – a castrato – was the stage name of Gaetano Majorano (1710 – 1783). Although a great artist who commanded exorbitant fees, Caffarelli was something akin to an eighteenth century Kathleen Battle. Petulant, temperamental, unpredictable, and abusive to his colleagues. Anecdotes abound. Given the music written for him, however, Caffarelli must have been an exceptional vocal technician. Fagioli meets these demands head on.
Fagioli’s tribute to Caffarelli (handsomely packaged by the way) contains eleven Neapolitan opera arias composed expressly for the famous castrato by such composers as Cafaro, Hasse, Leo, Manna, Pergolesi, Popora, Sarro and Vinci – not exactly your standard fare.
The disc opens with a bravura aria from Johann Hasse’s opera, Siroe. Following a tempest-tossed introduction by the Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra, Fagioli launches into the aria with complete abandon. Listen to this ‘live’ performance from Paris to get a taste of Fagioli in performance: “Fra l’orror della tempesta” (“Amid the horrors of the storm”)
Shortly after the release of his first solo album on Naïve, Fagioli released a follow-up CD devoted exclusively to the music of Nicola Antonio Porpora. Porpora (1686 – 1768) was a Neapolitan teacher of voice and composition who counted Cafferelli, Farinelli and Franz Joseph Haydn among his students. As a composer in his own right, Porpora was also much admired for his ability to set Italian text to music.
Fagioli tosses both of these projects off with élan. His clearly articulated coloratura with fluid runs, fearless leaps, and impeccable trills and ornaments are a marvel. His sense of inner pulse is strong while his rhythms are incisive and charged with energy. Other qualities include a wide dynamic range, a keen sense of pitch, enviable breath control, and a sweet but masculine tone.
Fagioli has also been busy in the recording studio. In 2014 alone, he released two splendid solo discs on the Naïve label: Arias for Caffarelli (Naïve: 5333) and Il maestro Porpora (Naïve: 5369); plus a complete oratorio, Antonio Caldara’s La concordia de’pianeti (Archive: 479 3356); and a complete opera, Johann Adolf Hasse’s Siroe, Re di Persia (Decca: 478 6768).