Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Marilyn Horne in drag?


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As it is written in the Book of Gay, any countertenor with the surname Fagioli is a countertenor to love. As demonstrated on his stunning solo recital Franco Fagioli: Rossini (Deutsche Grammophon), there's far more to love about Franco Fagioli than any intentionally clueless mispronunciation of his name may suggest.

In this compilation of extended, mostly off-the-beaten-path Rossini arias for mezzo, accompanied by the period instruments of the Armonia Atenea (formerly the Athens Camerata) under George Petrou, Fagioli turns more than one stereotype on its head. Instead of singing repertoire composed for countertenor, which is what many bel canto-trained mezzo-sopranos sing, he instead embraces the male "pants roles" that were originally written for mezzos. "Girls can't have all the fun," he seems to say.

Fagioli also surprises by sounding far less like a man singing countertenor than a rich-voiced mezzo. His voice is exceptionally strong, with round, attractive tones and an amazing facility with showy coloratura. Trills are perfect, and long-breathed runs a marvel. Equally stunning are his gutsy low tones, which sound as though inspired by the strong, sensational-sounding low range of mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

Horne, in fact, recorded two of the Rossini roles that Fagioli tackles: Tancredi in the opera named after him, and Arsace in Semiramide. Arsace's extended recitative and aria, "Eccomi alfine in Babilonia, Ah, quell fiorno orgnor rammento, Oh, come da quell d"" ("Here I am in Babylon at last, Oh, I shall ever remember that day, Oh, since that day, how everything has changed for me!"), was a Horne calling cards of sorts. It is one that she recorded in 1964, and used to open and set the tone on her first historic recital of coloratura showpieces, as well as in several studio and live performances of Semiramide with Sutherland, Anderson, and Caballé over a period of 25 years. Arsace was the role in which she scored major triumphs with Sutherland at the Met and La Scala, and reprised close to 20 years later with Caballé.

I performed a direct comparison between the two artists' renditions of the aria on their respective CDs. Fagioli, who seems to maintain virtually the same forte volume level throughout, is more limited in emotional compass. Emote he does, with great sincerity and careful attention to words, but he seems confined to a single aching tone. It's hard to tell just how dynamic his voice is, given the excessive reverb, but it sure sounds stronger and more substantial than the voices of countertenors David Daniels and Philippe Jaroussky. His high notes, while extremely impressive, take on a white, bleached quality common to many countertenors. But they, as well as his low tones, are quite stunning.

Horne, on the other hand, warms her tone when she sings of love. She's not afraid to sing softly, with touching intimacy, and to reserve her power for the knockout coloratura variations at aria's end. Those variations may not be as ornate as Fagioli's, nor the notes of her runs as clearly differentiated, but the overall impact is far more spectacular due to the wider emotional range and greater focus on top. Equally benefitting from her ability to weigh on her trademark, cavernous low tones to wondrous effect, Horne's performance is a triumph.

Equally notable are the differences between the sounds and approaches of the orchestras. Petrou's early instrument sound is exceptionally clear, his dotted rhythms far more precise than conductor Henry Lewis creates with his modern instrument orchestra. Where Petrou lingers in the orchestral introduction, savoring every instrumental sonority and effect, Lewis moves faster, as if aware that his role is secondary to that of his wife, Marilyn Horne. The orchestra's sound is beautiful, but doesn't upstage the diva. Those who love the sound of period instruments will eat up some of the delicious instrumental solos on Fagioli's disc.

Quibbles aside, Fagioli is an exceptional artist. His "butch" expression is far more believable than David Daniels', and his volume far greater than Jaroussky's. But where Daniels is tender and moving, and Jaroussky exquisite, Fagioli seem content to present himself as a coloratura powerhouse.

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