“Prima la musica, o prima le parole?” is the question debated in Strauss’ opera about opera, Capriccio. Words definitely took second place to music in Franco Fagioli’s recital of Baroque operatic arias performed by the great Italian castrato Caffarelli. Barely a single consonant reached the back of Wigmore Hall, resulting in a series of extended melismata – brilliantly sung – but dramatically neutered by lack of words. When the lights were inexplicably flicked off after the interval, one couldn’t even rely on programme texts and translations to work out what Fagioli was singing.

Franco Fagioli © Julian Laidig
Franco Fagioli
© Julian Laidig

The Argentinian countertenor certainly has staggering technical prowess – and the extravagant platform demeanour – to rival Cafferelli. The programme note describes how Caffarelli “affected the characteristics of a spoilt, preening starlet to the delight of the opera-loving crowd”. Fagioli strikes a pose and largely holds it through each aria and his response to applause is effusive. He plays the divo to perfection, even to the point of delaying his arrival on stage.

Riccardo Minasi, directing an ensemble which was essentially Il Pomo d’Oro in all but name, indulged his antics with good humour. Waiting for Fagioli’s arrival after the interval, he stopped to admire Wigmore Hall’s ceiling, sniffed the floral display, struck up a conversation with a fellow violinist. The music-making, however, was serious and consistently impressive. Caffarelli was Farinelli’s great rival and the recital included demanding arias from Johann Adolf Hasse’s Siroe re di Persia, an opera in which both castrati shared the stage. Fagioli also included an aria from Semiramide riconosciuta, composed by his teacher, Nicola Porpora, as well as works by Leo, Cafaro and Pergolesi.

Fagioli’s is not the purest countertenor sound you’ll ever hear. His voice is not so far removed from Italian mezzo Cecilia Bartoli in sound, both in its dark palette and in the rapid-fire coloratura agility. The high tessitura of “Lieto così talvolta” from Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria was deftly handled, including varied dynamics in the da capo repeat, along with subtle ornamentation. Steady trills led to a wonderful cadenza where Minasi echoed Fagioli’s vocal line perfectly. One senses Fagioli loves the vocal fireworks best though. Hasse’s “Fra l’orror della tempesta”, lacking the promised horns, displayed his superb facility for coloratura. He also slipped between different registers effortlessly, including several dips into baritone territory in a fizzing “Crude furie” from Handel’s Serse.

For a band of only seven string players, Il Pomo d’Oro made a satisfyingly ripe sound. They shone in four instrumental numbers, especially Minasi whose playing was always tasteful, never unduly aggressive. Ragazzi’s Sonata in G minor is a violin concerto in all but name, as opposed to the more sombre F minor Sonata heard later. Even in Nicola Fiorenza’s Concerto for three violins, it was Minasi who took the lion’s share of the solo work. Accompaniments for Fagioli’s arias were played with a stylish flourish that Italian Baroque ensembles do better than anyone.

Aural balm was spread in Ariodante's “Dopo notte” as an encore, before “Fra cento affanni”(from Vinci’s Artaserse) concluded proceeding with a final display of consonant-free Baroque pyrotechnics. Frustrating, but fascinating.