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Briefly Noted: Arias for Marchesini

available at Amazon
Arias for Luigi Marchesi, A. Hallenberg, Stile Galante, S. Aresi

(released on September 25, 2015)
Glossa GCD923505 | 71'45"

available at Amazon
M. Feldman, The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds
(University of California Press, 2015)
Among the vocal recital albums devoted to great historical singers are a few bringing together arias written for castrati, those unnatural voices who were the toast of the opera world in the 18th century. Countertenor Andreas Scholl attempted to step into Senesino's shoes, and mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli confronted the repertory in her odd Sacrificium disc. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, whom we have admired in many opera recordings, does the same with some of the arias composed for Milanese castrato Luigi Marchesi (1754-1829). Trained as a chorister at Milan Cathedral, this soprano castrato known sometimes as Marchesini was known as much for his good looks as for his vocal skills, which were renowned throughout Europe.

In her book The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds, University of Chicago professor Martha Feldman compiles and translates several accounts of Marchesi's art, as well as that of other castrati. She quotes a writer named Pietro Verri, who heard Marchesi at La Scala in 1780 and wrote about him in his correspondence with his brother Alessandro Verri: "I can find no singer with whom to compare him. He's faultless in intonation, does things of great difficulty, and commands his voice as one would a violin." Although he "has everything," all the technical prowess one could want, "the only thing he lacks, I think, is feeling, the kind that knows how to touch your soul," without which "he's a marvelous bit of non-sense, all bits and pieces" (un non senso maraviglioso a pezzo a pezzo).

Assisted by Stefano Aresi (Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Pavia) and Stile Galante, the historically informed performance ensemble he founded in 2010, specializing in the music of the Neapolitan Baroque, Ann Hallenberg tries to recreate the singer's vocal exploits. Václav Pichl actually transcribed some of Marchesi's extensive ornamentation and cadenzas, and Aresi and Hallenberg use these documents, both incorporated literally and used as the basis of recreations, in the performances recorded here. Technical marvels often attributed to the castrati include a preternatural breath support, as well as a combination of a male singer's power with a female singer's range and agility.

Not all of these qualities come naturally to Hallenberg, especially Marchesi's penchant for huge leaps, sometimes over two octaves, but the sound is convincing and quite beautiful. The selection of arias is also attractive to the collector of curiosities, including pieces by Luigi Cherubini, Domenico Cimarosa, Johann Mayr, Giuseppe Sarti, Gaetano Pugnani, Niccolo Zingarelli, and sadly just one aria by Josef Mysliveček, who was Marchesi's most important musical partner in his early career. The instrumental contributions are also fine, prompting me now to go back and listen to Aresi's earlier releases with this ensemble on the Pan Classics label.

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