If you sing like an angel, you might as well look like one. Philippe Jaroussky, considered one of the world’s finest countertenors, came onto the stage in Hohenems, Austria, last Saturday evening with the demeanour of a celestial being: elegant, somewhat chiselled, an almost Mannerist figure, but indeed mortal (born in 1978 in Maisons-Laffitte, France). While best known for his compelling and enlivened interpretations of Baroque cantatas and operas − one only need listen to his stunning rendition of Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” to know why – Jaroussky’s concert varied markedly from those genres. Instead, he and his superb accompanist, Jérôme Ducros, gave an emotive programme of music set to selected poems by Paul Verlaine, the early 20th century French poet.

 While out of his usual repertoire, Jaroussky was by no means out of his comfort zone. He sang works composed by ten different composers, familiar names such as Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Saint-Saëns figuring among them. Using a virtuosic coloratura technique, his songs spilled from him like sounds from a harp, and to the words used widely: “la calme,” “mon coeur,” “l’extase,” he lent new colour each time he came across one a second or third time. He also delved into works of lesser-known composers: Reynaldo Hahn, and Joseph Szulc, for example. The ease and buttery quality of his phrasing seem to have found just the right lyric in Ernest Chausson’s appeal to listen to  “La chanson bien douce”  or Poldowski’s “La lune blanche, whose last line is: “Cêst l’heure exquise.” The concert was that indeed.

Verlaine’s “Green” was performed twice in two different composers’ versions, and the delightful “Mandolin” no less than three times, by Fauré, Hahn and then Poldowsi. While sentimental by today’s measure, the poem’s words slid from the singer’s mouth like honey or mead. And his expression, perfect diction and clear tonality met with a warm reception; when he ended the song with an infectious smile on “de brise,” most of the audience broke out in a chuckle along with him. Jaroussky’s is an infinitely likeable stage presence.

Countertenor, of course, is not every music listener’s darling. It is a voice indebted to the tradition of the great Italian castrati, and we are told that for every young man who enjoyed its brief success, there were hundreds of others whose careers had but the bleakest of prospects. Jaroussky’s more recent story differs widely: apart from being entirely “intact” − as many are quick to point out − he began his musical career with the violin, but took up piano before ultimately turning to singing and a conscious choice to develop his “head voice.” 

Hohenems is an unassuming place. An agrarian community among the Austrian aristocracy’s great land tracts, it developed in the late 19th century into a thriving financial, trade, and cultural community, in no small part thanks to its Jewish population. The war years changed that radically and today, the local, well-appointed – if emotionally shattering – Jewish Museum is well worth a trip to Hohenems to understand how. But it is the town’s dramatic pre-alpine setting that seals the deal in the festival’s favour. The Hohenemser alps jut out of the ground just behind the town’s northernmost houses like huge moss-covered teeth of some great fabled beast, but one that, today, has been tamed to gentleness, and seemingly protects the town from all ills and prejudice.

It's interesting how a place such as this will spur creativity. A stone’s throw from Hohenems’ Markus Sittikus concert hall is another museum devoted to the German soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who not only performed frequently here, but also enjoyed the company of other legendary musical talents. Above the concert hall, founder of the festival, Gerd Nachbauer, shares a collection of homely photographs whose many greats of opera, chamber- and orchestral music – Fischer-Dieskau, Abbado, Lang Lang, for example – sit arm-in-arm with colleagues around a table or pose in the garden, giggling and looking remarkably young…

Philippe Jaroussky also now counts among the stellar musicians who share this little patch of the world’s enchantment. As for the critics who suggest he stick to the Baroque repertoire: go home! I, for one, hardly want to be bereft of a voice that extracts such beauty from the French syllabic song, and will counter any who argue that Jaroussky should run the old road only. He’s just too good at what he did on Saturday night. Other than that, why mess with angels?