Franco Fagioli: Handel Arias
Back in 2004 a rising young countertenor released his first solo recording of arias by Handel and Mozart (Arte Nova, A/04). The performances, though technically promising, were a little bloodless emotionally – no match for their many rivals. With his latest disc, Franco Fagioli returns to Handel for the first time as a recitalist since that early effort, and this time the results are arrestingly, uncompromisingly thrilling.
There has always been a brute brilliance to Fagioli’s performances. His extraordinary agility, coupled with his power and range, makes for quite a technical armoury, but it’s one that has rendered him oddly invulnerable, unable to find (or perhaps simply uninterested in finding) the fragility and humanity – the emotional space – this music demands if it is ever to be more than just a vehicle for virtuosity.
So while the coloratura thrills here are predictably spectacular, it’s the other elements – the new-found care and weight of the slower arias, the range of vocal brushstrokes throughout, the dramatic conviction – that hold the attention. The thick-spread tone through ‘Frondi tenere’ (the recit preceding ‘Ombra mai fu’), the sudden feathery, breathy lightness of Mirtillo’s ‘Sento brillar nel sen’ from Il pastor fido and a ‘Cara sposa’ in which Fagioli’s plush voice decays into frayed threads of emotion – all speak of an artist absolutely in control of not just his instrument but also its theatre.
Spectacle-seekers need not fear, though: Fagioli plays unashamedly to his strengths in a glossy selection of showpieces, including not only ‘Crude furie’ and Oreste’s exhilarating ‘Agitato da fiere tempeste’ but also a second stab at ‘Venti turbini’. All (a bizarrely measured ‘Dopo notte’ aside) are exemplary, animated by the invention and bravado of Fagioli’s ornaments, the impossible clarity and articulation of the coloratura and the singer’s sheer pleasure in his own peak fitness.
All wire and wood, Il Pomo d’Oro (directed from the violin by Zefira Valova) are a natural foil to Fagioli’s richly upholstered voice. Playing the straight man, they temper his instinctive indulgence with dry, quick musical repartee. It’s a seriously classy double-act, a partnership that elevates an outstanding disc to one of the finest Handel recitals in a while.