I don’t usually review operas that I watch on TV or DVD, but this time I will make an exception. L’Opéra national de Lorraine à Nancy has presented a production of Semiramide, by Rossini, and it was streamed on May 11 on Culturebox’ website (thank you!). Semiramide is a monumental work; it is considered the last baroque opera, and it poses extreme challenges to the singers: at least 4 of them have to manage a very demanding score, with impossible coloratura, intense interpretation details, and just an incredible amount of music.
In order to understand the production in Nancy, we need to dig into some music history. In the baroque period, the stars of the opera world were the castrati: men whose puberty was prevented by the removal of their testicles when they were kids, and grew up to be men with very high (female-like) voices. Apparently, the voice of a castrato had the trumpet-like power of a male, paired with the tessitura of a female voice, with extremely high notes, and this made their art absolutely unique and admirable. They became all the craze in the opera world of the 1700s, taking up male leader roles – warriors, rulers, heroes. The audience’s taste changed towards the end of the century, and by the beginning of the 1800s their decline was evident. Composers stopped writing castrato roles in their operas, the last one was in an opera which premiered in 1824, and it was already out of fashion.
For many years and centuries, the castrato roles were sung by women: whenever a baroque opera was set up, altos and mezzos would take the male roles, singing with the right voice and the wrong body. Nowadays, we have countertenors: men with all their male parts in place, who sing as high as women, using different types of technique, all involving some kind of falsetto voice. Some of them are extremely good; they perform baroque operas and, even if their voices are probably quite different from the real castrato voices, still they can give a philologically correct account of this practice.
After the decline of castrati, still the audiences at the beginning of the 1800s were accustomed to see a male hero with a very high voice, and this led to a series of heroic male opera characters written for a high voice, which were never sung by a castrato (nobody wanted to see them on stage anymore) but by a woman.
Rossini wrote one single opera fora a castrato voice: Aureliano in Palmira, in 1813, for the last singer of the castrati Golden Age, Giambattista Velluti. And then he wrote some of his masterpieces for female singers in the role of a male hero: Tancredi (1813), Falliero in Bianca e Falliero (1819), Malcolm in La donna del lago (1819), Otello, written for tenor, but also sung by Maria Malibran (1816), and Arsace in Semiramide (1823). Arsace is one of the best roles ever written by Rossini, who created it for contralto Rosa Mariani. Marilyn Horne revived this wonderful role during the Rossini renaissance, in the 1980s, with June Anderson and Joan Sutherland in the title role, and Samuel Ramey as Assur. Ewa Podles sung Arsace to Mariella Devia’s Semiramide in the 90s, all the way to the amazing performance of Daniela Barcellona, in a production in Munich featuring Joyce Di Donato, Alex Esposito and Lawrence Brownlee. Arsace was never sung by a castrato. Never. The role was envisioned for a woman, and performed only by women.
Enter Franco Fagioli.
Fagioli is a very special countertenor. His technique is peculiar, very similar to Cecilia Bartoli’; his timbre also has some of Bartoli’s qualities. He has enjoyed an enormous success in the early music and baroque repertoire (see my review of Eliogabalo, in Paris), and his voice does have a lot of belcanto qualities.
And now we come to Nancy, where the Opéra national de Lorraine has decided to set up a Semiramide with Fagioli as Arsace. The result was a big disappointment. The role is just too hard for him; he is not at ease in this music, he does not have the right Rossini style, and cannot act or sing Arsace in a convincing way. He tended to push hard on his lower register, and the higher register suffered as a result. Let me be fair here: his coloratura is absolutely amazing, as always, and so are some of the dynamics. The high notes were hit and miss, some came out really well, some incredibly strained. He has very good projection, but, in the ensembles, his voice got swallowed by the rest of the cast, and by the orchestra. Countertenors just don’t have the needed vocal presence to be heard through a thick orchestra score. He seemed stretched to the limit of his (still remarkable) capabilities, and the musical result was just not very good. He also looked out of breath, and I thought he was on the verge of physically collapsing.
This whole thing, in itself, could be written off as an ill-conceived attempt by a second-tier opera house to do something weird, but, on the contrary, it is the sign of a much more general tendency in the opera world. As noted before, for a long time the early and baroque roles originally written for castrati have been sung by women, until, in the last 30 years or so, we have seen countertenors take over. When countertenors became a “real thing”, meaning that they stopped being an oddity, and claimed their rightful spot on the stage, the general cultural tendency became “women are out, countertenors are in”. The cool opera houses were casting countertenors in baroque roles, and not mezzos. This is all fine and dandy, and I’m all for it, as long as we talk about Baroque. The problem is that now I see a very worrisome tendency of men replacing women even in roles that were never written for (or performed by) men.
As the old and cranky feminist that I am, I cannot but interpret this as a vile attempt of men to throw women out of a niche where they have been extremely successful for centuries. And I don’t mean that the countertenors themselves are the enemy here. It’s more that I see a general tendency “men are cool, women are not”, and this cultural idea is the enemy.
An exaggeration? Let’s see. In the next season, the Opéra de Lausanne presents a production of La donna del lago where the role of Malcolm will be sung by Max Cencic, and a production of La clemenza di Tito where Sesto is Yurij Minenko. Cencic and Minenko are not even close to Fagioli’s skill, they are much farther away from belcanto than he is. We have already seen countertenors singing Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro. This is just wrong, and it pisses me off to no end. These roles were never written for men, and countertenors cannot get themselves heard through the orchestra.
Going back to Semiramide in Nancy, Salome Jicia was singing the title role. She is an alumna of the Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro, who I have already heard as Elena in La donna del lago. She was the only singer in the cast who gave the impression to know how to sing Rossini: she had the right intention and the right style. The role is just too hard for her: she is very young, and such a demanding role is not quite within her reach. Not yet, anyway. She sounded out of her depth, in several places.
The rest of the cast was overall dreadful. Nahuel Di Pierro has a reasonably nice voice, but he just does not have the agility required by the role of Assur. Matthew Grills, as Idreno, also has a very cumbersome coloratura, and his voice tends to lose shape and control in the high register. Fabrizio Beggi, as Oroe, had intonation problems. The orchestra itself had serious intonation problems, in the strings, and it produced a very pale and forgettable performance.
I HATED IT.