Maxed out

Might Max Emanuel Cencic be the countertenor for people who hate countertenors?  I wondered that during intermission at his impressive concert Friday evening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as I eavesdropped on two excited converts cooing over the beauty and elegance of his voice. 

The always provocative Croatian singer, despite an acclaimed, wide-ranging discography and a busy opera and concert career in Europe, appears rarely in the United States, so the opportunity to catch him singing baroque arias accompanied by the young Italian original-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro was irresistible. The occasion was to celebrate his latest CD “Arie Napoletane,” a collection of 11 engaging vocal works composed for early 18th century Naples, nine of them world premiere recordings.

Unfortunately, the (other) Met did its artist and audience a disservice by failing to provide any information about this unfamiliar music nor texts or translations of the eight arias programmed. Although I had the CD prior to the concert, it was a surprise to discover that none of music performed during the first half is included on the recording. Initially, Cencic seemed unsettled and alarmingly score-bound, especially in his stiff but agile account of “Agitata è l’alma mia,” the first of three arias by Nicola Porpora. Two bland excerpts from Domenico Sarro’s Didone Abbandonata were nicely done but failed to make much of an impact, while the highlight proved to be a transporting “Torbido intorno al core” from Porpora’s Meride e Selinunte demonstrating that Cencic is at his best in slow, melancholic music.

Throughout that first half one was continually struck by the enveloping warmth and fullness of the voice. The off-putting hootiness that afflicts so many countertenors is notably absent. Unlike many of his peers who have strong upper registers but lack full middle and lower ranges, Cencic has a wonderfully rich alto.  He commands excellent coloratura that is never aspirated, and he chooses tasteful ornaments that serve the music rather than simply show off his technique. He is not, it must be said, the most probing interpreter—words don’t seem to count for much although his Italian diction was clear, and he has a distracting habit of “conducting” the music with his right hand.

The program’s second half was appreciably more appealing with Cencic more at ease in the four arias, all found on “Arie Napoletane.” A fizzy “In questa mia tempesta” from Leonardo Vinci’s Eraclea featured particularly sparkling decorations in its da capo repeat, followed by the exquisitely lilting “No, non vedete mai” from Siface by Leonardo Leo. More Porpora concluded the concert—a grandly noble “Qual turbine che scende” from the amusingly titled Germanico in Germania, an obscure work revived just this past summer at the Innsbruck Festival.

It’s too bad that economics ordained that just five members of Il Pomo d’Oro could make the trip to the U.S. Although the string players played with fire, they couldn’t help but sound a bit scrawny at times. With a big mop of brown hair and appearing all of sixteen, Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev led his small forces from the harpsichord with spirit and contributed a slight but sprightly concerto by Domenico Auletta. The most substantial instrumental piece was a vibrant, driving “Grave and Fuga in G minor” often attributed to Johann Adolph Hasse but more likely composed by Franz Xaver Richter.

With one exception, the arias performed at the Met came from operas written for Naples during the pre-galante period of 1724-1737. An excerpt from Il Tigrane, a 1716 work by Alessandro Scarlatti, sounded quite old school by comparison.  As Scarlatti is often called the father of the Neapolitan school of opera seria, it’s fitting that the CD favors him over the other composers by including four of his arias including several from the late 17th century.

I suspect many of us own A Short History of Opera by Donald Jay Grout who was a passionate advocate of Scarlatti’s operas but somehow they rarely seem to catch on. While René Jacobs did revive La Griselda, the last of Scarlatti’s over 50 operas, in 2000, and Fabio Biondi has recorded Carlo Re d’Alemagna along with a number of oratorios, most modern-day singers and opera groups have yet to embrace the Neapolitan master.

Rather than sing more Scarlatti from “Arie Napoletane,” Cencic turned for his encores to two arias by the great Hasse, a shockingly neglected German composer who studied in Naples. In fact, Cencic’s recent interest in Hasse is only one more example of his tireless, wide-ranging interest in expanding the baroque repertoire. His extraordinarily rich discography—first on Capriccio (especially his delectable Caldara cantatas), then on Virgin Classics and most recently on Decca Classics—contains a remarkable number of modern-day premieres.

One of the encores, “Vo disperato a morte” from Tito Vespasiano is featured on his essential Hasse collection “Rokoko,” and it along with an aria from Hasse’s Irene inspired his most intense and dramatically involving singing of the evening.

I’m somewhat ambivalent about the recent Cencic-Decca recording of Hasse’s opera Siroe; it’s unclear why they chose to perform the much later 1763 Dresden version over the 1733 Bologna version and why the over-hyped “one-trick-pony” Julia Lezhneva includes an aria by Carl Heinrich Graun! But nonethelesit remains a happy opportunity to hear lots of thrilling Hasse at his most infectiously galante under the invigorating baton of George Petrou leading his increasingly valuable Armonia Atenea.

Even more important than resurrecting Hasse has been Cencic’s involvement in the rescue from obscurity of the forgotten operas of Vinci, beginning with the now-famous all-male revival of Artaserse.

After plans were announced to revive yet another Vinci opera, I heard a lot of rumors that it couldn’t be very good, that lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice. But this summer saw the release of Catone in Utica on Decca, and the naysayers were proved wrong. The very first setting of another masterful Metastasio libretto, the 1728 opera brims with entrancing, gripping music. Riccardo Minasi leads the full Il Pomo d’Oro and another marvelous all-male cast with Artaserse stars Franco Fagioli and Valer Sabadus again stealing the show. It’s a moving testament to Cencic’s devotion to the project that he takes on the more modest role of Arbace.

But be warned that Catone is very long –nearly four hours–and includes yards and yards of recitative, far more than any recording of any opera seria I’ve ever heard. (For those who can’t get enough of Catone, Opera Lafayette revives Vivaldi’s setting in the recent Glimmerglass Opera production next week in both Washington, DC and New York.)

Despite recent financial challenges facing the arts, Cencic and his management company Parnassus Arts Productions remain extremely active in bringing rare baroque music before the public. Just recently they have produced a new recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria starring Fagioli as Farnaspe, while Cencic attempts to rebrand one of Handel’s most shunned operas with a new CD for Decca of Arminio with a staging at the Karlsruhe Handel Festival to come in February opposite recent Metropolitan Opera Lindeman Young Artist Layla Claire as Tusnelda.

While Cencic can be quite the sartorial peacock, his outfit on Friday was relatively modest—a black-and-gold patterned jacket over a black shirt and skinny jeans. However, the first time I heard him–in Andromeda Liberata at Zankel Hall in 2004—he was clad in an extravagantly brocaded jacket that came down to mid-calf. But he faced major fashion competition that evening from his leading lady, the German soprano Simone Kermes who was decked out in one of her usual over-the-top extravaganzas. As she and Cencic entered for their duet, she let out a loud yelp: he had stepped on her train! I’ve always wondered if it was really an accident. But his earlier heaven-sent “Sovvente il sole” had already stolen the show in any case.