Cher Public

Perfect stranger

Although NYC countertenor-lovers might mistake this season for “All About Iestyn,” the superb French exponent Christophe Dumaux quickly slipped in and out of town this weekend to sing Handel and Vivaldi in a marvelous gala concert with the Sejong Soloists at Zankel Hall. 

Many might be surprised that Dumaux is just 38 as he’s been performing at the top level for more than fifteen years. He burst onto the scene in 2002 first as a member of the initial edition of “Le Jardin des Voix,” the young-artist program of Les Arts Florissants and then as Eustazio in Handel’s Rinaldo under René Jacobs at the Innsbruck Festival led to his first recording.

He’s appeared twice at the Met both times in Handel supporting roles: his debut was in 2006 as Unulfo in Rodelinda, the same night Andreas Scholl made his first appearance. Dumaux then returned in 2013 to handily steal the show from David Daniels (and Natalie Dessay) as a flamboyant Tolomeo in the Sir David McVicar Giulio Cesare, a production to which he’ll return for his final run in the role next summer at the Glyndebourne Festival.

As one might see from that Tolomeo

Dumaux has become celebrated for this dynamic stage presence and an effortless theatricality has been used by opera directors in a number of unconventional ways.

Dumaux’s appearance Sunday night might have been considered sedate by comparison; tall, thin, with a full dark beard and dressed all in black, he was content to perform his five arias with a minimum of histrionics but with an involving immediacy. He began with Bertarido’s famous “Dove sei?” from Rodelinda in which he spat out the initial dramatic recitative with bite and almost too much volume before beginning the aria with an impressive, very Marilyn Horne-like messa di voce. Some singers slowly wallow in sorrow of this piece but Dumaux chose a more propulsive tempo that worked well.

Dumaux has become typecast as Ariodante’s villainous Polinesso, a role he recently performed in Lausanne, Stuttgart and in both Salzburg Festivals this year opposite Cecilia Bartoli. He will do it again in February at the Vienna Staatsoper where he reunites with William Christie in a new McVicar production. New York at least got a Polinesso-morsel with “Dover, giustizia, amor!” which he threw off with a suave hypocrisy that momentarily made one forget Sonia Prina’s chortling, grotesque version of the same aria this spring at Carnegie Hall.

Though he’s usually Tolomeo, Dumaux has sung the title role in Giulio Cesare recently opposite Sonya Yoncheva and we got a tantalizing glimpse of it with “Se in fiorito almeno,” one of Handel’s greatest arias and the concert’s definitive high point. Cesare who has just been seduced by Cleopatra’s “V’adoro pupille” compares her song to that of a bird in a piece where the voice intertwines bewitchingly with a solo violin here played by the group’s leader Xiao-dong Wang. He and Dumaux playfully traded lines with infectious panache and roused the audience to a fervent ovation.

Dumaux’s part of the evening concluded with two selections by Vivaldi. He began with the first section only of the searing Stabat Mater; this struck me as odd as I don’t ever recall hearing just a single movement of a baroque sacred piece performed. The final piece was Tamerlano’s raging “Barbaro traditor” from Bajazet; both Vivaldi were soulfully and energetically performed respectively but couldn’t match the transcendence of the Handel that came before.

It’s too bad that Dumaux performs so rarely in New York as he remains one of the best countertenors before the public today. The voice is rich from a potent top to a full and resonant middle and he’s not afraid to occasionally dip into his “natural” baritone voice when the drama requires. He negotiates coloratura with aplomb, eschewing the effortful aspiration embraced by some of his colleagues.

Dumaux first collaborated with Sejong Soloists in a series of concerts with Daniels earlier this year in Korea. I had previously been unaware of this fine string orchestra but learned that for more than twenty years it has been touring widely and recording a number of CDs while also being involved in many educational out-reach activities both in the US and around the world.

The concert’s non-vocal selections were strikingly varied from a mournful soaring rendition of Webern’s very Mahleresque “Langsame satz” to a spiky pungent “Murmurs in the Mist of Memory” by Augusta Read Thomas, a fascinating four-moment piece for eleven players inspired by a poem by Emily Dickinson. The Thomas was first performed by Sejong in 2001, the first of the ten world premieres in which it has taken part.

The vibrant sound of Sejong was a bit disconcerting in the first selection, a double-violin concerto by Vivaldi whose works are not usually performed these days with such lush vibrato. The evening’s master of ceremonies was television journalist Paula Zahn who has been the host for these special concerts for fifteen years. An avid cellist, she joined the group for a soulful “Danny Boy” in the program’s second half but her gracious introductions were unfortunately marred by a few slips—Handel and Vivaldi are of course 18th, not 17th century composers and Dumaux is surely a countertenor, not a tenor!

Speaking of Mr. Davies after his run as the petulant Francisco in The Exterminating Angel at the Met he is currently on Broadway where the play Farinelli and the King has just begun previews. He shares the title roles with Mark Rylance and then returns in March to Carnegie Hall for the title role in Handel’s Rinaldo where he will also be joined by young hotshot countertenor Jakub Jósef Orlinski as Eustazio, Dumaux’s breakthrough role fifteen years ago.

  • I’m not a huge fan of countertenors in opera, but Dumaux is one I really do like. I’ve only seen him four times, and not since 2015 (Tamerlano in Brussels), but I’d always be glad to see his name in a cast again.

  • CKurwenal

    I’ve only seen Dumaux as Tolomeo, at Glyndebourne, but I thought he was brilliant -- very memorable, even 12 years later.

    • I first saw him in David Alden’s production of Poppea at the Palais Garnier in 2005. Then in 2011 he was Tolomeo in Pelly’s production of Giulio Cesare with Natalie Dessay in the same house, and at the Bastille in Mantovani’s Akhmatova, in one of Joël’s productions.