If the renaissance ideal was purist clarity, boiled down to shapes like square and circle, Baroque sweeps in with a penchant for drama for drama’s sake: the squares turn to trapezoids, the circles to ovals. Add some waves that rush forward to nearly reach the ankles of Mozart, some 35 years later, and you’re all set for a night with Pergolesi’s “Adriano in Siria”, with a cast that covers a range from Baroque affect to pre-classicist lyricism.
It was an evening – the final leg of the select concert performance tour that accompanied the recording release – that raised a few questions: Why is there so much Stabat mater and so little Pergolesi seria going around? (I don’t know) Why am I incapable of going out of an opera night without 15 pages of notes? (I don’t know) When did Romina Basso turn into the silver fox to outfox them all? (I don’t know, but you won’t hear me complaining)
The cast of the evening was nearly identical with that of the recording, only the Aquilio of Sofia Fomina was added to the line-up.
The plot revolves around Adriano, who has just conquered Syria. For being the Emperor, he has not all that much to sing. The real hero is Farnaspe (Franco Fagioli), one of the defeated Parthians, who is dating Emirena (Romina Basso), daughter of the now-dethroned Osroa (Juan Sancho), who in turn is not amused by being short a job and a throne. Neither is Sabina (Dilyara Idrisova), Adriano’s fiancée, because Adriano has fallen for Emirena instead. And we’ve got Aquilio (Sofia Fomina), advisor to Adriano, who is trying to make use of that development because he is hopelessly in love with Sabina himself.
It was my first encounter with the Capella Cracoviensis under Jan Tomasz Adamus, who conducted from the harpsichord. A half dozen first and second violins, two double basses placed on either side of the pitch, oboe, two horns and a continuo group (encompassing one of the basses). The sound – which may have been a bit one-sided because I sat very much to the side – came across as sharp and brilliant, notably so for a period band. I did a double take at first wondering whether those could even be gut strings.
Overall, and in comparison to my recent exposure to the muscled and elegant warmth of Les Musiciens du Louvre, or the very much soloist, laying-bare-the structure approach of Il Pomo d’Oro, the Capella Cracoviensis felt like a marble relief thrown into sharp light. The first violins in particular had a near metallic brilliance to them, intersecting nicely with the bright approach of the continuo harpsichord.
The work by the continuo group was laid-back in comparison, with detail work and small tempo variations in a very present theorbo and harpsichord that captured my attention before the overture was even over.
[Curtains after “Adriano in Siria” at TADW: Sofia Fomina, Romina Basso, Franco Fagioli, Dilyara Idrisova, Yuriy Mynenko]
“Adriano in Siria” boils down to many arias, an astounding amount of recitative monologs, often veering into accompagnato territory, and one final duet.
The first voice on stage was Yuriy Mynenko, who continues to offer a youthful and even timbre, though much more poised by now (when I hear Mynenko, I always have to think of this). If he does not have to push past mezzoforte, he has a beautifully cultivated tone, particularly in the middle range, which was evident already in his first “Dal labbro, che t’accende”. There is some slanting in more dramatic outbursts, but if there is a way to place the tone well, he manages evenness throughout the ranges and also has a present, healthy-sounding top without distracting tightness.
And then Fagioli. I heard him last in the same house in April with Mozart’s “Lucio Silla”, but the Pergolesi is a much better vehicle for his flamboyant dramatic abilities. His way of music-making is unique in a way that he employs a lot of scenic momentum, but allows the audience to participate in the act of producing it.
It start with making an entrance, with, in a sea of black, a just ever-so midnight blue satin jacket with a subtly Neapolitan shoulder, an epic white shirt with a tulip collar, and with patent leather shows showcased by a stance that is half a Baroque reverence already.
If Mynenko, at times, seems to exude the serene calm of a choir boy, Fagioli is a bird of paradise, or perhaps a silk pheasant – not by theatrics, but by default, in a deeply serious way of music-making that simply does count with stances and ornaments.
You can see him visibly get into every piece of music in the introductions to his arias, he shares his nerves and his labor of producing a certain atmosphere, a certain color, without hiding it behind smoothed poise. To me, his invitation to the listener was at all times extended, and he did some stupendous, amazing work on this night that was always tempered by offering himself up to the music he sang, and to his audience. At no point, I found his poses arrogant. They merely seemed a sincere way of work – notable for example in his bows that are close to old French reverences, but there is never the impression that this is put on for show, or to prance about: it just is, and it fits the evening and the sound just fine.
And, yes, the sound. Fagioli’s tone projects well and the sound is viscerally satisfying in that there is no need to fill in overtone blanks as happens at times with countertenors. The timbre is rich, round-going-on-oval, and colorful. And,yes, at times, if you close your eyes, it is like hearing Bartoli. Fagioli has less of her effortless sfumato, but there are definitely shared choices in coloring, most characteristically in sending the sound across the roof of the mouth back to a near guttural coo, and then back forward to a brighter, more outward projection again.
Third in a row of impeccable suit jackets was Juan Sancho – a slight, youthful figure who must be a Bostonian by vocation since he wore bright red socks with his patent leather shoes. He also marks the first time I have ever seen someone wear a cutaway outside of British upper-class weddings (I am now in favor of it). Sancho dove into the drama head first, not with vocal force, but with pronunciation. His voice is not big, but it has a nicely German-Mozartean tenor core, that slight hue of graininess that often gets dubbed ‘virile’, particularly in middle range, which is nicely compact, and in his top notes. His lower range was more than once covered up by the pit, and the top did not count with even squillo – I am guessing some vowels carry better than others. His Italian diction stood out, as did his commitment to drama and character. His first aria, “Sprezza il furor del vento”, counted already with the horns, who were very well tied into the overall orchestra sound and whom I would have liked to hear in more arias.
[Curtains after “Adriano in Siria” at TADW: Yuriy Mynenko, Dilyara Idrisova, Romina Basso]
If you want to know who had the most effortlessly sovereign timbre on this night, though, you have to look past all three men towards Romina Basso, who had the best-placed tone and most accurate use of color palette, at least during the first half of the evening (the air in the hall became very dry as the evening went on, and it may relate to Basso’s timbre coming out a little flatter at the end of the night).
So. Romina Basso. I had never heard her live before, and remembered her from concert videos as a somewhat Loren-ish redhead with a definite amount of swagger. Kind of like this. So I was admittedly thrown for a moment when the cast took an introductory bow before the show started and Basso walked out with short, dark, silver-streaked hair, wearing something flowing and gauzy and black and with a slit up over one knee that could have been lifted straight out of a Golden Girls episode, with a long string of knotted pearls and glasses on a necklace. It was classy Dorothy Zbornak putting the blame on Mame, and yes, it was very appealing.
It didn’t hurt that she also won the butch timbre context hands down (as the old saying goes, shiver me timbre, and it was probably coined around mezzo-sopranos). So it was this, and unstrained and focused sound, expertly shaped into gutsy phrase-acting, and turning recitative into 3D entities. (Yes, I may have gotten a little swoony. Or a lot.)
It says something if an evening with stunner arias – and there are three mother-of-all-arias numbers for Fagioli’s Farnaspe alone, and each of them did indeed stop the show – the most gripping, compelling moments happen in the recitatives. Not the being wrapped up in sublime sound or being swept off one’s feet, but that breathless moment where you perception has to shift to a new axis because something, in some bare phrase, just inexplicably happened.
Fagioli’s recitative work was the best when it was in reaction to Basso – the two of them challenged each other to a Baroque power performance not in strutting sound, but in sculpting phrases, pushing for the dissonances more than for the resolution. (Oval, not circle.)
In comparison, Fagioli – whose diction, due to other priorities in sound production, comes out somewhat garbled at times – is working with a line that is still primarily based on sound and sound-painting, whereas with Basso, one gets the impression that she is talking, she just employs notes to do so and gets the meaning across through setting text to music.
The first big aria for Fagioli is “Sul mio cor so ben qual sia” – a large bravura number with a very big range. Fagioli is not afraid to add notes in chest voice that are all tied in in style – not trying to make them uniform, but distinct, and he works with that color difference. It is visible what the music does to him, and he allows himself to move along with it. Looking at him, at times he is the poster child of all Baroque lines, “Agitato da due venti”, the proverbial ship braving the musical sea with gusto and skill. I don’t think anyone could accuse him of his trill being effortless – it visibly takes effort, is audibly produced, but what marvelous results that yields! And, yes, there is some tightness at times, some notes slanted to oval past the point of no return, but his performance sizzles. – Another similarity to Bartoli: some acuti feeling somewhat padded.
Basso’s first aria, in comparison, is “Prigionera abbandonata”, but the thing that stands out, breathlessly, is the final line recitative phrase just before it: “Ah, pena”.
Basso is seeking out the the friction of dissonance, the vocal look into the abyss, the intensified sound that carries half a wail on its echo. Yes, her clear, supple middle register stands out, but the intriguing thing are not the vocal acrobatics, but the vocal illustration of text. She seems to go for a kind of truth with no fear of extremes, and in that, she and Fagioli fit each other well.
Of the other two soloists, Sofia Fomina offers a soprano villain who shows up with, yes, trousers, but moreso with a sparking collar of jewelry (tiara is so yesteryear’s princesses), a lace shirt and a ponytail of evil scheming. Her lower middle and bottom register shows the influence of the Eastern European school in a dense, darkened sound with an underlying vibrato. Fomina gave an engaged, technically solid performance with some nice scheming smirks thrown in.
The Sabina of Dilyara Idrisova, in turn, works from the bright tone of a light lyric coloratura. All dazzle, with enough core to ground it. Her voice is pleasant and well-tempered, with some Pamina-esque weight to her timbre: beautiful, but not particularly involved. At times, the very careful front projection in the top register sounded a bit distant, as if not entirely free, but she had full command of her coloratura and showed off some seamless crescendi. Of her “Chi soffre senza pianto”, it were the embellishments in the reprise that stood out.
One of the perks of Pergolesi seria is the amount of accompagnati, which, in their use of orchestral color and dramatic painting of emotion, seem to catapult 1730s Naples forward to 1770s Austria.
Sancho’s dethroned King Osroa made use of the affect scope and dove into the swerving changes with lots of energy. His tone remains slender, though, which at times detaches it from the openly dramatic text, but the Capella Cracoviensis is supplying a background drive that carries very well.
Even some of the secco recits have a modern-day feel, as in the very civilized break-up between Adriano and Sabina:”There’s another woman?” – “Well, I don’t want to lie to you.” – “How could you. Well, I better get on the next ferry out.”
In contrast, the reunion of Fagioli’s Farnaspe and Basso’s Emirena is a case study in intensified Baroque affect: Basso’s “Farnaspe!”, with a heavy second syllable, the ‘s’ very late, but very pronounced, met by Fagioli’s driven “Principessa!” Now those were two lines to swoon over.
It is this make-up recitative (before, Emirena is shunning Farnaspe for political reasons and they are both suffering and, well, Baroque opera 101) that really slays the evening in its delivery, an emboldened, still searching Farnace asking, “Dunque io son?” with devotion, and Basso’s Emirena proclaiming “La mia speme, il mio amor” in a a way that led the audience to miss a breath and get a little dizzy. I downright blushed at the delivery of that phrase, and then wondered whether someone had suddenly turned up the thermostat?
If Romina Basso, in this instance, had been a painting style in her handling of words, she would have been a stark Caravaggio entering the serene color palette of a Botticelli scene: wild and dark and hunting for every last bit of truth, and oh so very three-dimensional.
(okay, I think I have to upgrade my post tags to ‘undignified fangirling’. Sorry.)
It is a sensation that translates to the actual space: Basso is the one who moves the most on this evening, who keeps turning her body fully towards her stage partners, who takes a step closer, and acts. Fagioli is a close second here.
Of course, since this is Baroque opera, as soon as Emirena and Farnaspe make up, they have to part ways, and Emirena gets to look after his retreating form with a languid “Sola mi lasci a piangere”, which was a very good take, and the band did a very good baseline with a dotted string background, but the most thrilling thing, again, happens right before that: the last line of the preceding recitative is “Che mai sarà di te, dolce ben mio?”
Basso, fairly recently, has done concerts and also released a recording of Sephardic songs and laments, and all the shades of ‘endechar’, all her work in that Ladino repertory, seemed to echo in this “Che mai sarà di te.” – Holy Smoke. I had the feeling of the chair being pulled out from under me by that single line.
During the following aria, I thought that, yes, perhaps her top has lost some of the smoothness it had five or ten years ago, but, God, her rhetoric skills are amazing. Skirting the edge of ‘too much’, working heavily with fading notes, sometimes abruptly, with portamenti on the edge of glissandi, with a killer instinct on where to add another passing note, add it near impossibly late, and then how to hold it, hold it, until it nearly breaks…
The second big Farnaspe aria afterwards was technically stunning, but didn’t unhinge me as much. It’s “Lieto così talvolta”, featured on Kermes’ Lava recording, and it is a good comparison because Kermes’s slender take is resting in itself: clear, bright, unperturbed. Fagioli’s take is much darker, straining towards something, pushing and yearning, and never just clear. It is the making of an idyll, not just relishing in it. Fagioli is not a ‘pure stream of sound’ kind of singer. Again, he coos and trills and thrills… and the trills are not happening, they are fantastic artistry.
The Capella Cracoviensis moved beautifully in giving him space for his cadenza at the end of the B part and he kept smiling as he sang, again keeping the process visible. His singing is commenting on the story more than embodying it, and he, once more, did that Bartoli thing of centering the sound in different parts of the mouth, turning it from brighter to more guttural and back again. At that point, even I wouldn’t have had gender quibbles on cis-casting – it was a beautiful take, it sounded great, and after this gift, he bowed into a long reverence, looking humbled and happy.
Like this, the hall walked into the intermission – lots of opera queers of all genders. Even more straight women in the 40-60 age segment, though, who were enraptured by Fagioli.
After the intermission, there were a few beautiful takes by the side characters: Fomina’s Aquilio going a little Abigaille for “muove la destra”, with the harpsichordist smiling and nodding emphatically. Her/His “Saggio guerriero antico” comes with another lengthy recitative intro, and Fomina tried to add to the story with it, making a scene in the ebst sense. Idrisova’s “Splenda per voi sereno”, in turn, was her best aria of the night, showing off clean, bright coloratura work, a well-focused tone particularly in the same-note repetitions, and overall lyric coloratura dazzle.
Adriano get a nice vengeance aria when he is almost murdered, “Tutti nemici e rei”, with a thriving pit – it is kind of wild and Mynenko does very good job with it, but he is not as effortlessly dramatic as Fagioli. My notes on Sancho’s raging “Leon piagato a morte” read, in turn, “Horns and Sancho. Please date. Each other.”
There is a lengthy recitative between the men, with Farnaspe and Adriano arguing over who is guilty of trying to murder whom, and who gets to marry Emirena. Emirena cuts in, and again, Basso’s timbre is the most commanding of all of them, with her small embellishments and, at that point, notably dry ‘rrr’ takes – her “Quell’amplesso e quel perdono” still sees the most involved acting on the concert stage and in the ensuing recitative, but pales in comparison to Farnaspe’s ultimate showstopper, ” Torbido in volto e nero” – crazy leaps of at least two octaves, and at one point, I have scribbled “Holy Cecilia, what even *was* that acuto?!” into my notes.
The vocal interaction between Basso and Fagioli in the recitatives continued to be a thing of beauty, where at one point Fagioli took Basso’s exact note and spun it on.
The evening culminates in a duet of Farnaspe and Emirena, “L’estremo pegno almeno”, and it extends this energy: dissonances dovetailing into each other while both have turned towards each other, taking cues from the other’s stance, as if logically straining for contact and closing also the physical gap between them. Basso has the grounded, sculpted warmth, Fagioli has the flaring heights. At times, her vocal line moves below his here, two singers who make each other go further in search of expressiveness.
The duet has a very catchy minor key shift towards the end that seems to edge them on further still. The intonation was perhaps not at 100% throughout here – there are a capella lines with wild swerves – but I did not care because this piece, handled by these singers, made things happen. They seemed genuinely touched by each other’s singing, too, and the mood in the audience, towards the end of a nearly 3 1/2 hour opera, echoed this spark of magic.
Well-deserved applause all around, in the end with most of the house on their feet.
[Curtains after “Adriano in Siria” at TADW: Yuriy Mynenko, Dilyara Idrisova, Romina Basso, Jan Tomas Adamus, Franco Fagioli, Juan Sancho, Sofia Fomina]