In the ever-expanding realm of countertenors, Franco Fagioli is his own kind of phenomenon. A relative newcomer to the international stage, he gained immediate prominence in late 2012 with his role in Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse. Although Fagioli has since been nicknamed after the legendary Farinelli, his most recent concert at the Wigmore Hall consisted of arias written for Farinelli’s rival Caffarelli, punctuated by instrumental pieces and well-timed extempore banter between Fagioli and conductor Riccardo Minasi.
A performance by such an outstanding singer demands an equally strong set of instrumentalists. Il Pomo d’Oro, with whom Fagioli performed, are such an ensemble, a young group focusing on the revival of forgotten works and on historically informed practice. As cellist Ludovico Minasi informed me during the interval, all his instruments are made according to his particular requirements by the Roman luthier Eriberto Attili. The group’s traditionally small Baroque format (seven instruments, with Riccardo Minasi playing one of the violins) made for total synchronicity, producing a taut, supple sonic texture. In contrapuntal music, each harmonic line is often a commentary on the others: particularly in Giuseppe Avitrano’s Sonata in D major ‘L’Aragona’, the cohesion between the players provided the audience with a rich perspective on the musical text.
After an introductory sonata by Angelo Ragazzi, Fagioli took to the stage to delivered the balance of lyricism and pyrotechnics he is notorious for. His timbre, warm and slightly guttural, is surprisingly full for a countertenor. The three-octave range that enables him to tackle a wider variety of parts than most of his peers also sustains his virtuosity at coloratura (the ornamentation of a vocal melody through complex leaps and trills). He pays considerable attention to soundscape, with considerable dramatic effect: his voice moves seamlessly from low to high volumes while retaining its focused intensity. Other than Patricia Petibon, he may not currently have an equal for messa di voce, creating a gradual crescendo or diminuendo on a single note. His mouth contorts uniquely when he sings: I have never witnessed another singer take advantage of the vibrational potential of the lips and cheeks to the extent that he does. Each sound is measured, weighed, and projected precisely as it was intended.
Beyond being an outstanding vocal technician, Fagioli is also an extraordinary interpreter of the musical score. Most Baroque arias feature a final da capo passage, mirroring the first movement and leaving room for a performer’s improvisational skills. Fagioli’s da capo sections, for the most part, proved refreshingly low-key; he avoided excessive, high-velocity runs, instead favouring melodic variations to subtly shift the mood and colouration of the original theme. Minasi’s and Fagioli’s common choice of arias was equally well-advised. Proceeding chronologically from Angelo Ragazzi (1680-1750) to Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), the programme almost didactically followed the development from the mid-to late Italian Baroque.
But an opera — especially an opera of this period — is always an adaptation of a poetic text, and an acute composer will take into consideration the soundscape of poetry when setting it to music. When it comes to diction, Fagioli often falls short, tending to lack definition. The actual verbal discourse, which in operatic convention provides the urge to start singing in the first place, blurs into the background too often in Fagioli’s renditions. Conversely, sopranists such as Philippe Jaroussky have made a method of clear, rolling consonants and ample vowels: when I listen to Jaroussky, I hear the articulation of poetic material. Fagioli’s performance, to a significant degree, misses that dimension.
Even so, Fagioli remains a phenomenal interpreter: his undaunted technical bravado and intelligent approach continue to assert him as an axiomatic presence in contemporary countertenor singing. With the emerging generation of younger singers like David Hansen and Valer Barna-Sabadus, it will be interesting to gauge his influence on them. The two encores aptly returned Fagioli to his starting point; they were taken respectively from Händel’s Aridante, premiered in London, the very city that Fagioli was performing in, and from Artaserse — the forgotten opera that launched this phase of his impressive career.
Pierre Antoine Zahnd