Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Franco Fagioli – Arias from Caffarelli

I spent last week in London, taking some very interesting and helpful singing lessons from Christopher Jacklin. On Friday 13th November 2015, whilst the horrific terrorist attacks were happening in Paris, I was at a concert in the Wigmore Hall.

The concert was given by the outstanding Franco Fagioli, an Argentinian counter tenor, who was supported by Il Pomo d'Oro, an excellent string and harpsichord ensemble led by Riccardo Minasi.

I have to admit that up to now I’ve not been a great fan of the vocal music from the High Baroque, finding the melismatic passages artificial and wearisome.  But I now realise that this is because they are often not performed well and suffer from the limitations of some contemporary singers concerning the understanding of the idiom.  In some cases the substitution of female mezzo sopranos for male alto roles changes the character of the interpretation, and stylistically the natural way that 18th century singers created and performed unwritten decoration is partially lost to us; but Franco Fagioli's performance generated no such reservations.

The quality of Fagioli’s voice is both beautiful and clear in the upper register, whilst also possessing a mezzo soprano quality in the lower notes. In this performance well chosen decoration, together with his extraordinary vocal agility, produced accurately executed melismatic passages, which never descended into purely vocal exercises but remained expressive and focussed on the phrasing. His wide range, perfect intonation and beautifully timed trills all supported his artistry and musicianship. 

Fagioli’s programme was inspired by the repertoire of the 18th century castrato, Gaetano Majorano known as Caffarelli. He was taught at the conservatoire in Naples by Nicola Porpora, who wrote the first item on the programme “Passaggier che su la sponda”.  Naples was at the time the centre of the Italian opera industry and Porpora also taught the more famous Farinelli.

From the end of “Passaggier che su la sponda” the Wigmore Hall audience, which surely must be the most educated group of music lovers in London, broke out into well deserved and spontaneous  calls of “Bravo!” which were frequently to be heard throughout the evening.

The two famous castrati appeared together in the opera “Siroe re di Persia” in 1733 from which the second item on the programme “Ebbi da te la vita” was taken.

Fagioli has made a study of the gestures used by baroque singers from paintings of the period and he uses them in performance.  At first I found this mildly distracting, but soon they became more natural in my mind, and helped me to feel that Fagioli very convincingly both performs and portrays the music of the period, seeming for me to inhabit the persona of a singer like Caffarelli whilst he is performing.

At the end of the concert he didn’t get a standing ovation after his two encores, but in my opinion he richly deserved it! I think that he takes the art of the counter tenor to a new level.

This bravura aria "Odo il suono di tromba guerriera" comes from Fagioli's outstanding debut album "Arias for Caffarelli" and was written by Gennaro Manna (1748) for the opera "Lucio Papiro dittatore".

And finally I have to include this most beautiful and moving aria from Handel’s Ariodante, it's a real gem!  At the end of “Scherza Infida” you can see just how much he invests emotionally in what he is singing.

E vivo ancora?
E senza il ferro,
oh! Dei!  che farò?
Che mi dite, o affanni miei?

Scherza infida in grembo al drudo
io tradito a morte in braccio
per tua colpa ora men vo

Mà a spezzar l'indegno laccio,
ombra mesta e spirito ignudo
per tua pena io tornerò.

Do I still live?
And without a sword,
O gods! What shall I do? 
What do you say, o my troubles?

Enjoy yourself, o faithless one, in the arms of your lover
Betrayed by you,
I will now give myself up to death's embrace

But, in order to break this shameful tie
a sad and bereaved spirit,
I will return to punish you.


  1. Les critiques anglaises des représentations de Franco Fagioli à Londres (Idomeneo, Caffarelli) m'ont jusqu'à présent souvent surprise, parfois indignée (au point que je me suis demandée si nous avions les mêmes oreilles....). Enfin du positif. Merci de la part d'une fan absolue.
    Marie Adeline Desain

    1. Thank you for your comment Marie. It prompted me look and see what other reviewers have said about this concert. I have only found three reviews.
      Pierre Zahnd in the Oxford Culture Review is fulsome with his praise and the only thing he criticises is Fagioli’s articulation, which I agree can sometimes take second place to his musicianship.
      John- Pierre Joyce writing in music OMH gives Fagioli’s performance 5 stars.
      Erica Jeal, in a somewhat niggly review in the Guardian, does not seem to be persuaded that his performance style is appropriate and is less than enthusiastic, giving the evening only three stars. Perhaps she was having a bad day.
      In the limited world of the counter tenor Franco Fagioli is a star performer. If he had been a lyric tenor he would already be on his way to becoming internationally famous.