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 Opera Now, November 2015

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PostSubject: Opera Now, November 2015   8th November 2015, 07:54

Breaking Boundaries
Opera Now, November 2015

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“One thing I’m not is a sopranist.” Philippe Jaroussky, the eternally youthful countertenor star with the air of the head altar boy, is a quite clear about that. “The colour of my voice has always led people to suppose I could sing much higher. But being the sopranist means having top ‘C’s - and I don’t. What was difficult in my career at first was my very clear timbre. It was qualities such as vocal purity, luminosity and the ability to affect people with its direct simplicity; but it also has its drawbacks: a lack of dramatic force and perhaps a certain fragility. I readily take responsibility for that. That is why I’ve always chosen my roles carefully. And that’s why I couldn’t imagine singing any other role in Vinci’s Artaserse than the title role, which is a least virtuoso part in an opera which has five countertenors!”

Colour is a keyword with Jaroussky and informs his choice of repertoire. When I interviewed, he was in a final rehearsals for a new staging by Stephen Langridge at the Theatre des Champs Elysees of Handel’s penultimate work, Theodora. Now 36, Jaroussky started off with high alto (or what he calls ‘mezzo’) roles when only 21. “People were starting to cast around for a man to sing Nero (in Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea) and I accepted. When I first started out, I was convinced my voice would move down to alto, but in fact it is still essentially in the mezzo range although it has filled out.”

I wonder if Didimus, his role in Theodora, is not a little on the low side but he thinks not: “I was attracted to Didimus because it’s quite an elegiac role and rather luminous, as all the arias are in the major key. It’s a young man’s role and it suits my vocal colour even if I’m not that young anymore. Yes, it is low but it’s not a dramatic role and that’s the key factor.”

This is also his first big part in English, I believe? “Yes, and also my first Handel oratorio. I had a slight complex about singing in English. It sometimes seems as if every word has it’s own pronunciation. But when William Christie suggested I do this production three year ago, I jumped at the chance, on the grounds that he was the best person to help me take the plunge. He has the same high standards in English pronunciation as he has in French declamation. Once I get through this performances I will have taken a big step forward in my career.”

So, will Jaroussky now be tempted to perform in more oratorios? It’s no surprise that Messiah is not on the list (too low), but that he might consider David in Saul, a youthful role and a high alto range that’s made for him. What about a modern operas such as George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which has been such a hit in France? It’s back to colour: “We often speak of the range of the voice when it comes to role choices, but it’s not the only factor. The vocal colour required is as  important and the countertenor part in Written on Skin is rather dark, so not ideal for me.”

There is, however, a new opera in the offing, Kaija Saariaho’s Only the Sound Remains, which will be premiered in Amsterdam in March 2016. Based on two Japanese tales, it’s scored for two soloists and a small ensemble. Jaroussky plays a spirit in the first part and an angel in the second, a token of what he calls the ‘otherworldly sound of countertenors’.

It is also another sign of the countertenor voice’s appeal to contemporary composers; no new opera ever seems right without one now. Meanwhile, audience are just as keen.Ever since Alfred Deller emerged from his cathedral choir after the Second World War and sang in public, the interest in male altos, initially passed of as a fad, has gone from strength to strength. What is so attractive about the voice? Beauty, obviously, in some cases along with an ethereal, haunting quality. Jaroussky also thinks that some audiences are “fascinated by castrati and they feel the fantasy is better conveyed to countertenor rather than a mezzo and soprano voices. That explains why Cecilia Bartoli on her tour for her Sacrificium CDs devoted to castrati very intelligently decided she had to dress for the part. With countertenors, there is no need for a costume. We are immediately in a world where men are singing with high voices even if the sound is different. Also, people sometimes talk about purity and an unworldly quality. It’s not always true, as there are now dramatic countertenor voices with real body; even so, there is the something of our childhood and a throwback to the child we once were. For me, that’s part of the success. I also have a lot of women fans, which suggests there’s a maternal connection too.”

Though today’s competition is fierce, Jaroussky appears to have secured superstar status, dwarfing rivals, at least on Facebook where he has more than 60,000 followers (his Spotify score is only beaten by Bartoli). Some of this is undoubtedly due to his unique sound. When Artaserse was staged in Nancy, shortly after the CD was released, Jaroussky’s voice was easily the most recognisable of the five countertenors on show, its adamantine sheen a giveaway in any blind test.

Modestly, he puts this social network popularity down to regularly updating his Facebook page though he admits he has recently been too busy to keep up. He has been touring the world giving recitals in Australia, Asia and South America - not necessarily an easier option than opera: “People say opera is tiring but doing a recital involves much more singing. You have to sing eight or nine aries with two encores… and you’re singing them not over three or four hours an opera takes, but but in half the time.”

I wonder if his foray into non-countertenor territory like the French melodie has also won him fans. He has already made two CDs, Green and Opium featuring songs by 19th- and early 20th-century French composers. Both were commercial success, though the motivations were purely personal, not marketing gimmicks: “I’m really keen on this repertoire, as I learnt to sing by way French melodies. With my teacher I worked as much on Debussy and Faure, and Reynaldo Hahn as on Pergolesi, Vivaldi and Handel. This is not virtuoso repertoire: Faure is geared to poetry, and I don’t see why a countertenor voice shouldn’t express a French poetry. I also trained as a pianist and I love the voice-piano combination. The piano is much softer than a Baroque orchestra or a harpsichord. And as a Frenchman I need to sing in French.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I point out that Debussy never had a countertenor sound in mind whereas Handel, for example, was often writing for castrati. Jaroussky rises to the challenge: “But perhaps if Debussy had heard the countertenor voice, he would have written specially for it. As for Handel, a voice like mine is as different from a real castrato as a mezzo soprano. It’s a question of expression, not vocal category.”

As for a future, Jaroussky will be switching directions and tackling German music, with a CD scheduled for release in November 2016. He would also like to return to the first wave of countertenor repertoire by singing Bach, Purcell and Dowland.

The next event after Theodora in his diary is the release of a new CDs set of Partenope, one of Handel’s under-recorded operas. It was a chance to work with Riccardo Minasi and his Pomo d’Oro ensemble, and one of Jaroussky’s favourite singers, soprano Karina Gauvin (he appeared with her earlier this year in a CD of Steffani’s rediscovered Niobe). Rather like Riggiero which he sang in a new production of Alcina at this year’s Aix Festival, Arsace, his alto male role in Partenope is matched with a trouser contralto role. “That creates some ambiguity so it was interesting to have a much clearer timbre like mine as Rosmira’s suitor.” Yet, as well as vocal colour, it is also a question of standing out from the rest: “My guiding principle is: what can I bring to a role compared to others in the past? Can I throw new light on the part?”

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PostSubject: Re: Opera Now, November 2015   8th November 2015, 11:23

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PostSubject: Re: Opera Now, November 2015   21st December 2015, 20:02

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