Cher Public

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.

  • armerjacquino

    I remember when Kowalski was the countertenor for people who don’t like countertenors, and then when Ragin was, and then when Scholl was, and then when Daniels was… I think some people just don’t like countertenors.

    (Think Cencic is ace, though)

  • Buster

    Surely Mr. Corwin wrote this?

    • Christopher Corwin


  • Some people may just not like countertenors, but they have a huge and, so it seems to me, often uncritical fan base.

    • Perles75

      I think the lack of criticism goes both ways. Some fanboys cannot see any fault in their favourite of the hour (usually it is connected to a specific singer) and get angry if someone has a different opinion; on the other hand some people cannot simply accept countertenors are serious singers.

      • I was thinking of the reaction when Fabio Biondi was interviewed on a Spanish site, I think last year. He explained his preference for casting female altos, noting that the juxtaposition of countertenor falsetto voices with full women’s voices could create an imbalance on stage (IIRC he used the word “grotesque”), and reminded the interviewer that countertenors were not cast in castrato roles. He claimed that he had not always been able to do as he wished, under pressure from theatre directors and record companies, who wished to cast their star countertenors. I was surprised o tsee people who, until then, must have snapped up his recordings of, say, Vivaldi works saying more or less he was an ignoramus and that his remarks were scandalous.

        Personally, I was in sympathy as I have indeed often found countertenors to be relatively short on volume in the theatre.

        • As usual, I didn’t remember correctly. I don’t see the word “grotesque” in the interview, but: “… en un teatro de ópera, una vez que está cantando una soprano y que sale un contratenor, se produce un poco de dolor en la comparación”.

        • Perles75

          I think nowadays there are excellent counters around, who can be a great alternative to mezzos or altos. The 80s and 90s, when it was fashionable to use a countertenor everywhere and produced an army of mediocre if not outright awful singers, have passed, but sometimes we are still influenced by that stereotype.

          Surely, they are quite rare. And I think women (on average) have definitely the advantage in terms of sheer volume and ease of producing sound. However I like the different timbre and shade of color a good countertenor gives to a role or to a part.
          Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste (after you filter out the bad singers).

          I understand Biondi’s stance -and there is always a huge discussion on the correct use of counters in early music-, but I think he’s too strict and he generalizes too much.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I agree it seems like there is a section of the counter tenor fan base that is uncritical. I don’t believe a singer in any other Fach would be tolerated with the kind of intrusive nasal resonance that Jaroussky has -- I can’t think of a single example of another successful, internally known singer where it features (maybe Barbara Hendricks, but to a lesser extent, only in a certain part of her voice, and it came and went rather than marred everything). Derek Lee Ragin, Paul Esswood and others had pretty unattractive voices that didn’t work very well, but managed to have international careers working with top colleagues in their field. There aren’t many singers on the international circuit who are as boring as Scholl. People seem to adore Robin Blaze but I think it’s downright unpleasant. And I am at a loss to explain the career of Bowman -- novelty, at the time he first stepped up, I suppose.

      I am a lover of the counter tenor voice but I still want it to be well-produced and attractive -- I judge it by the same standards I judge any other category. Personal favourites are Chance, Daniels and Cencic. I enjoyed Brian Asawa but it seems as if he had a very short career. Dumaux was fun in the Glyndebourne Cesare.

  • Cicciabella

    According to the programme of a recent live Siroe I attended, in the later (Dresden) version Metastasio’s libretto is left unchanged and uncut, including the recitatives. (The recits were abridged at the concert; don’t know if this is the case on the recording.) Hasse had become convinced that Metastasio’s dramas deserved not to be tampered with, an accepted practice at the time. Musically, the Dresden score is also supposed to be more forward-looking, linking the galant style with early Mozart. Hasse intended to rescore the whole opera, but ran out of time, so some if the Bologna music remained. The Graun aria was added to the Lezhneva character (forgot her name) to make her last-minute transformation from scheming royal mistress to repentent woman more believable, otherwise the change-of-heart comes too suddenly.

  • Krunoslav

    Intrigued by your ref to the “over-hyped “one-trick-pony” Julia Lezhneva”. I agree that she’s over-hyped, and would not be if she didn’t look 12 years old.

    But what is the one trick you think she holds in her arsenal? Coloratura? It certainly isn’t the tone quality…

  • Will

    Cencic sounds just wonderful in the clip provided (and I loved the music director, looking like a kid indeed). It doesn’t hurt that Mr. Cencic is a real looker, with or without (but preferably with, as far as I’m concerned) he beard. And if he can sing like that, I don’t care what he decides to wear; he’ll certainly look good in anything.

  • Perles75

    I actually found Vinci’s Catone quite uninspired. It has some beautiful arias but as a whole it doesn’t have the dazzling palette of his Artaserse. Recording-wise also it was a step backwards; singers more uninspired or directly miscast (Vince Yi’s Emilia is just wrong) and I really believe Minasi is an excellent recital accompanist but he doesn’t have yet the grasp to keep the drama going for a whole opera (as his Handel’s Tamerlano recording proves).

    It’s a shame not more of Scarlatti’s operas are recorded. However, on Youtube you can find Telemaco (I even think there’s a record of a staged performance of Telemaco somewhere) and Penelope la Casta.

    • Cicciabella

      Watch out for this Catone, coming up, after which it will be available online: Andrea Marcon is an excellent conductor. Only two-thirds of Catone have survived, and at this performance the missing third, assembled from other compositions, will be different than the solution on the CD.

    • Cicciabella

      Oops. I see now that you were referring to Vinci’s Catone, not Vivaldi’s. Sorry.

      • Perles75

        Speaking of Vivaldi’s Catone, there is also an excellent recording by Naive in the Vivaldi edition by the late Alan Curtis (maybe his last recording even?).

        There the first act (the missing one) has been recomposed by Ciccolini and I find his arias quite stunning and very Vivaldian (even if perhaps it mixes a bit the early and late Vivaldi style in the same opera).
        It’s also convenient that the reconstructed part is in disc 1 so if you want only to hear the original Vivaldi you just need to start listening from CD2.

        • Cicciabella

          I believe Marcon intends to use only Vivaldi music to reconstruct the missing part, but when I heard this he was still in the process of putting it together, so let’s see what they’ll come up with.

  • Amnerees

    If one likes countertenors, it’s a good idea to hear them early in their careers. The bloom seems to go off their voices earlier than for other types of voice. I heard Deller near the end of his career, and his voice had held up very well with a very clear (and for me beguiling) sound. Since then, most of the countertenors I’ve heard have had rather short vocal “salad days.” Most of them, however accomplished technically, lose quality and volume rather early and start sounding like somebody’s grandmother.

  • Christopher Corwin

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I was not initially enamored of the Vinci Catone, but after listening to it a number of times I was won over. Videos of the Versailles staging and a more recent concert performance from Bucharest helped to solidify my admiration. Sometimes Minasi’s added violin curlicues on the CD bothered me but on the whole I enjoyed his conducting although I might have preferred Fasolis or Petrou.

    A Vivaldi opera I attended a while back in Italy conducted by Biondi had a countertenor in its cast—he was terrible.

    As for Lezhneva, I admit her “sewing-machine” agility here is impressive but mostly what I hear is pinched and empty.

  • gustave of montreal

    Nice, she should sing Dalila.

  • I love working with countertenors! They remind me, in their own way, never to neglect the sweetness of the voice, which is something that we, ladies, often forget, or take for granted. All my recent teachers, mentors, stage partners were countertenors and I am thankful for each one of them! The thing is, that, many times, the people you respect, admire and enjoy working with, don’t respect, admire and enjoy working with each other -and that can create very delicate situations! I wish I could write how fortunate I feel for having met lately and sang for a prematurely retired baroque glory- it’s like a gift from Santa! But I am affraid that another countertenor we both know might be reading parterre box too…