It’s exactly two decades since I had my first, startling encounter with an extraordinary singer who’s thrilled and moved me like few others over the intervening years: back in 2003, a baby-faced Argentinian countertenor by the name of Franco Fagioli stormed to victory at the Neue Stimmen Competition in a bravura performance that revealed a voice of remarkable power, agility and range. An album of Handel and Mozart (now alas deleted) followed hard upon, and Fagioli’s debut recording for Pentatone today is dedicated to the latter composer.
Fagioli’s journey as a singer actually began with Mozart, in his native town of San Miguel de Tucumán. At the tender age of eleven (when his major passion was the piano), he was plucked from a local choir to sing First Boy in Die Zauberflöte – and as he told me when we met via video-call last month, it was an experience which changed his life. Mozart occupied a central place in his repertoire from the early stages of his adult vocal training, at a time when countertenors weren’t generally associated with his music – but as Anime Immortali reminds us, several of the composer’s operatic roles and major sacred works were actually written for castrati rather than for female singers (to whom they’re almost always allocated today).
Fagioli opens with La finta giardiniera’s Ramiro (created by the soprano castrato Tommaso Consoli), a role which he’s not yet sung on stage, and on the evidence here I’m crossing my fingers that some kindly casting-director remedies that in the coming seasons: he captures the lovelorn young man’s nervy, volatile energy to perfection, and technically it fits him like a particularly well-made glove. This is a singer who never rests on his laurels, and there’s none of the unease around the top of the stave that was occasionally evident when he sang Idamante in Covent Garden’s Idomeneo back in 2014 – here and in the two arias from La clemenza di Tito which crop up later on, that tricky area of the voice now sounds like a real sweet spot.
His approach to vocal fireworks, too, is unfailingly intelligent and stylistically aware: rather than emphasising register-changes with dramatic dives into chest voice (as he does to great effect in Baroque repertoire), he ensures that everything’s elegantly integrated, and the many coloratura passages are executed with an easy fluidity that contrasts strongly with the more aspirated style which he employs with Porpora, Handel et al.
All of this is an especial pleasure in Cecilio’s ‘Ah se a morir mi chiama’ from Lucio Silla and in the aria from Davide penitente which Mozart recycled from the ‘Laudamus te’ in his Mass in C minor, written two years previously. There’s a new steadiness to the voice here as well, particularly on the long sustained high notes, where there’s no trace of pressure or the rapid, Bartoli-ish vibrato which has become something of a trademark in his performances of Baroque repertoire.
The plum track for me, though, is Sesto’s sublime ‘Parto, parto’ from Tito: Fagioli sang the role to much acclaim in Nancy around a decade ago, and it’s evident that this is music he’s lived with for some time. The opening section is taken at an expansive tempo which would strike fear into the hearts of many a mezzo, and his phenomenal breath-control allows him to sculpt those long phrases with a tender loving care that would surely melt the heart of the stoniest Vitellia. (Special mention here for the clarinettist Markus Niederhauser, who mirrors Fagioli’s every nuance with real eloquence – though the playing of the Kammerorchester Basel throughout is every bit as dramatically engaged as Fagioli himself, who directs the ensemble in collaboration with leader Daniel Bard).
The motet Exsultate, jubilate, written for the soprano castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, rounds off the album in fine style, with Fagioli exulting in the nimble coloratura, finding some gorgeous colours in the central slow movement and cresting the final high C with insouciant ease. In our recent interview he expressed his gratitude to the early teacher who informed him that he was ‘a showman and a fine musician, but not yet a singer’ – twenty years on, there’s no doubt he’s all three.