The shocking arrest of David Daniels and his husband along with a flurry of other incidents over the past few days compelled me to ruminate on the current state of countertenordom. 

Amidst some dark thoughts, a beautiful concert of 18th century sacred music arrived at Weill Recital Hall performed by the soulful Polish Wunderkind Jakub Jósef Orlinski. Unlike that devoted to another singer who appeared earlier in the week, the publicity blitz surrounding this promising artist proved to be entirely merited.

It takes a secure young man to appear on the cover of his debut solo CD bare-chested swathed in tulle performing a program prominently featuring works by Nicola Fago! Anyone glancing through the disk’s booklet might agree with those who decry opera’s preoccupation with looks: nine photos of the comely Orlinski, three of them shirtless.

Even before the media onslaught Orlinski’s singing had been on my radar. When he was still a student at Juilliard I heard him as a very fine Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto, and he threatened to outshine several of his older colleagues in last spring’s Rinaldo in Carnegie’s main hall.

His first recording, an all-Handel collection with soprano Natalia Kawalek which also features a topless cover photo, was made a while ago in his native Poland. It contains flashes of excellence but isn’t otherwise all that recommendable.

But the altogether splendid “Anima Sacra” from Erato is much more than an excuse to ogle the new falsetto hunk!

Of the 11 sacred arias included, eight are world-premiere recordings and their composers which include Domenico Sarro, Francesco Feo, and Domènec Terradellas in addition to Fago may be unknown to even the most enthusiastic baroque fan.

Orlinski explained at Thursday’s concert that the program involved a great deal of research by Yannis François who has excavated some real treasures. Six of those were performed at Weill accompanied by members of New York Baroque Incorporated.

In a bow to higher name recognition, the concert began weakly with the well-known Vivaldi Stabat Mater in which Orlinski seemed off his game, his six-piece accompanying ensemble oddly scratchy.

Things improved dramatically with the motet Tam non splendet by Fago whose two other works are the real revelations of the CD. Presumably expense precluded the inclusion Thursday of his lavish Confitebor tibi, a grand piece with oboes, horns and bassoon, but the concert’s second half opened with his exquisite “Alla gente a Dio diletta” from the oratorio Il Faraone Sommerso.

The gauzily romantic video released to accompany the aria scarcely suggests its sacred text

All those beloved of God
Loosen the bonds of slavery,
Who can tarry, who can forbear,
When Heaven on high has preordained it?

but its gently haunting soundtrack shows Orlinski at his considerable best.

That warm open tone and rapt connection to this heavenly music shone through again in his live performance of the aria and throughout the entire Weill concert. His rich countertenor lies a bit lower than some so he can easily dip into his chest register without the jarring gear shifts one sometimes hears.

The top of his voice is not his glory and a few shouty hoots emerged but he was careful to limit higher excursions.

His plush yet delicate tone beguiles while his coloratura can be impressively fluent as in the dazzling opening of the Fago Tam. Occasionally though the florid music flowed a bit less easily as in an aria by Gaetano Maria Schiassi that he offered as a modern world premiere as it wouldn’t fit on the generously filled 76-minute CD.

His seemingly artless manner and directly emotional approach might have appeared gauche had his candid music-making not always been suffused with truthful modesty.

After a blithe brief encore by Francesco Durante, Orlinski spoke movingly of the recent death of Sanford Sylvan who taught at Juilliard and dedicated his final number to Sylvan’s memory. Fittingly it was the work that catapulted the singer into worldwide recognition via a viral YouTube clip with over 2.7 million views to date!

In it, he performs an informal outdoor rendition with piano (“wearing cargo shorts!” as the gentleman behind me breathlessly exclaimed) of “Vedro con mio diletto” from Vivaldi’s Il Giustino.

The final work on Orlinski’s official program was “Mea tormenta,” a striking aria I already knew from the recording of Hasse’s Sanctus Petrus et Sancta Maria Magdalena on which it’s sung by Terry Wey. By coincidence he appears as Arsamene in the acclaimed Stefan Herheim production of Handel’s Serse which debuted on Operavision the day after the Orlinski concert.

The livestreamed Xerxes, mostly sung in German, is available until the end of July and comes from the Deutsche Opera am Rhein. But it originated in Berlin where the roles of Serse and Arsamene were played by women singing with a modern orchestra. This Düsseldorf version, however, uses period instruments and instead two countertenors perform the warring brothers.

I have to admit that the extraordinarily detailed, relentlessly busy Herheim staging completely rubbed me the wrong way, but it was great to see Wey and, in particular, the Romanian counterdivo Valer Sabadus in an all-out bravura star turn as the title character.

While the role lies a bit high for Sabadus and he tired by the end, I couldn’t help but heavily sigh that he has never appeared in New York. But then neither has Franco Fagioli or Filippo Mineccia or Raffaele Pe or Yuri Minenko or any number of fine countertenors performing all over Europe and regularly popping out recordings.

When I saw this week’s announcement of the nominations for the annual International Opera Awards, I wondered how many would-be US voters are familiar with Xavier Sabata, one of the six performers short-listed for Male Singer of the Year.

A hail Catalan countertenor, Sabata has performed in New York but not since 2007 when he, Wey, Damien Guillon and reigning superstar Mac-Emanuel Cencic appeared in Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio at the Rose Theater.

Of course, countertenors aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but after perusing this week’s season announcements by Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center’s Great Performers, it appears this city’s programmers only intend to offer us one flavor: English Breakfast.

While the list of worthy countertenors we never get to hear grows longer, Iestyn Davies stars in three of next season’s major baroque programs but not before he sings both a recital and the Bach B-minor Mass at Carnegie Hall this May.

While I often (but not always) enjoy Davies, his NYC ubiquity (which has also recently included both The Exterminating Angel and Marnie at the Met, Farinelli and the King on Broadway and Rinaldo at Carnegie Hall) strikes me as overkill. I believe the Met is mounting a new production of Handel’s Agrippina next season and if I was a betting man….

Back in the day Daniels and his contemporary Andreas Scholl were nearly as inescapable as Davies, but they were, in a very real sense, pioneers. While not the first excellent contemporary countertenors, they were the pair who captured the wider public’s imagination and paved the way for Orlinski and his worthy peers whom we seem destined—at least for the next year or two–to experience only electronically.

On the other hand those who prefer mezzos can rejoice that the sublime Ann Hallenberg will finally appear in New York in a solo baroque aria concert!

Photo: Michael Sharkey