It was one of those extraordinary solo performance that left no-one in the audience indifferent. An unmissable event for all Baroque lovers in Paris: the Argentinian countertenor Franco Fagioli in town for a recital at the Salle Gaveau. The concert was part of a tour in support of his new CD Arias for Caffarelli. The singer, his band and producers got a nice surprise – in the middle of the recital, it was announced that the album had won the prestigious “Choc de l’année” award from the monthly French magazine Classica.

Franco Fagioli © Julian Laidig
Franco Fagioli
© Julian Laidig

In the 18th-century world of celebrity castrati, Gaetano Caffarelli was something of an enfant terrible. He was the equivalent of today’s rappers – a fiery character, a daredevil. One anecdote reports that Caffarelli was expelled from France because he dared to criticize the poor musical taste of the French King, Louis XV. And though they were born in the same region and had the same teacher (Nicola Porpora), Caffarelli had a totally opposite character from the gentle and lovable superstar Farinelli, who was five years older. But though Caffarelli was from a poor family, and his fierce character didn’t make his life easier, thanks to his immense talent and fine voice, he became very popular and died wealthy.

Fagioli’s similarity to Caffarelli is limited to timbre and his extraordinary vocal abilities; he does not share the castrato’s character. Like Caffarelli, Fagioli is a mezzo with extraordinary agility in an extended range, with an amazing vocal technique and a distinctive, clear timbre.

The program began with a Sinfonia by Domenico Sarro from a little-known opera called Demofoonte, conducted by the talented Riccardo Minasi and performed by the fifteen members of his “Pomo d’oro” band. The first of Fagioli’s arias was Porpora’s “Passagier che sulla sponda”, a typical aria di tempesta, very popular form in 18th century, designed to show off the extraordinary vocal agility of castrati. Fagioli sang it with jaw-dropping virtuosity and assurance. He instantly wowed the audience with this “sea-storm” aria, leaving people visibly stunned and amazed, before the whole Salle Gaveau burst into a chorus of “Bravos!”

Fagioli is fascinatingly similar to Cecilia Bartoli –  her timbre, her vocal flexibility, her tessitura, and even her facial expressions. And although one could even call it an “imitation”, it doesn’t diminish the overall admiration for his expressive singing – the audience was deeply moved and won over by Fagioli’s extraordinary talent and sensitivity. His execution of the highest tessitura and his flawless passagios in the most emotional arie di sostenuto, as for instance in Leonardo Leo’s “Misero pargoletto", struck an emotional chord and gave goosebumps to everyone in the room. Which reminds me of a phrase of  a French musicologist: “I can distinguish only two types of singers: those who give me goosebumps, and those who do not.” Without a doubt, there were not many people in Salle Gaveau who could say that Franco Fagioli does not belong to the the first kind.

His large voice volume, clear projection, seemingly effortless breath control and three-octave range with smooth, rounded passagios sounded almost ethereal in Hasse’s triumphant  “Fra l’orror della tempesta”. Here, as well as in Leonardo Vinci’s “In braccio a mille furie”, Fagioli was diving audaciously from falsetto to almost baritone range, competing with the trumpets for artistry on the verge of mannerism. With his vertiginous coloratura in these arias from lesser-known composers, Fagioli knew that he was risking fading emotionally, and losing expressivity and proper articulation. But surprisingly, he almost never slipped into the pure mannerism or blankness of vocal exhibitionism.

Fagioli and his producers Max Emanuel Cencic and Georg Lang from Parnassus Arts Production did a exquisite job unveiling these unknown Baroque gems, although sometimes the orchestration was harsh and the compositions lacked finesse and complexity. I missed Handel’s incomparable musical inventiveness, finesse and sophisticated harmony, and above all his Faramondo and Serse (except too notorious and weary “Ombra mai fu”, obviously) – operas that Handel wrote for Caffarelli.

The program consisted of two instrumental pieces and eight of the eleven arias on the CD, and “Sperai vicino il lido” by Leonardo Leo and “Un cor che ben ama” by Domenico Sarro were offered as an encore. Long applause, bravos and ovations ended only when Fagioli took his music, turned his back and clearly showed he was going home.

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