Every early music festival these days needs one or more star countertenors in their programme. At this year’s Müpa Budapest’s Régizene Fesztival, Romanian-born German countertenor Valer Barna-Sabadus was featured, together with the homegrown rising star, soprano Emőke Baráth in a beautiful duet programme entitled Duetti d’amore (held in the Festival Theatre, the smaller of the Müpa venues). In fact, this was a very special programme – not a crowd-pleasing popular duet programme but full of interesting baroque rarities by relatively unknown composers including Sartorio, Clari and de Majo (have you heard of them? I hadn’t). It was put together by late Alan Curtis, the eminent baroque conductor and scholar, with whom Baráth sang on several occasions. Both she and Sabadus gave a totally committed performance – a fitting tribute.

Emőke Barath © DR
Emőke Barath
© DR
Usually, these baroque duet programmes are for soprano and alto countertenor or a mezzo-soprano, but many of the repertoire in this concert seemed to be for two sopranos, and often the two singers would sing in a similar register, and in some pieces Bárath would sing the top part but in other pieces Sabadus would actually rise above her. Such a programme would only work if the two high voices can blend well with each other: with this pairing, although the two voices are quite distinct – Bárath clear and bright and Sabadus lighter and resonant – they blended really well, whoever was singing the upper part.

I last heard Sabadus in the spectacular all-male production of Vinci’s Artaserse at Versailles, where he sang the role of Semira, a soprano castrato role. His voice has different qualities to other high countertenors such as Fagioli, Cencic or Jaroussky – it is less bright and penetrating and more feminine, warm, and lyrical in the top range (I think he sang up to G or even A-flat above the treble stave), which is perhaps why his voice blends well with others. His intonation is impeccable, the phrases always beautifully shaped, and he is capable of vocal fireworks when required but always with good taste. Of his solo arias, Orfeo’s poignant lament “È morta Euridice” from Antonio Sartorio’s Orfeo (1672) was a highlight. He has a quirky way of swinging his arm about while singing, as if to galvanize himself, which may bother some people but if that helps him sing better, I don’t mind at all. He can display soloistic flamboyance yet is a sensitive ensemble musician, always attentive to Bárath as well as to the orchestra.

I was also impressed by Emöke Baráth whom I heard for the first time in a live performance. After the opening instrumental Sinfonia, she presented the solo prologue of Cesti’s L'Argia (1655) with eloquence. Her voice has a suppleness and purity that suits this repertoire, and she can really bring the Italian text alive and communicate it to the audience. Her solo “Or va', misera Giulia” from Cavalli’s Pompeo Magno (1666) was sung with poignant emotion, followed by a gorgeous Monteverdian duet with Sabadus.

The programme spanned from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. Porpora’s duet from the serenade Orti esperidi (1721) was in the typical baroque da capo form and sung with ornamentation in the A section repeat. In the final item, we moved onto a more Classical idiom with a duet from the opera Ipermestra (1768) by Gian Francesco de Majo (1732-1770), an Neapolitan composer and contemporary of Haydn.

The vocal items were interspersed with similarly rare instrumental works from the Italian baroque including Ziani, Falconieri and Motta, played with lively spontaneity by 8 members of the Italian ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro, lead from the harpsichord by the amiable Maxim Emelyanychev. The ensemble consisted of single strings plus a continuo section including theorbo, gamba and violone, but for a group of this size they were dynamic, if a little rough on the edges at times. In particular, Falconieri’s Sonata L’Eroica with a lovely violin duet mirroring the vocal duet was charmingly played, bringing out their best of the ensemble. The continuo playing in the recitatives was also constantly inventive.

No recital of baroque “Duetti d’amore” would be complete without the most sublime of them all, “Pur ti miro” from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and we were happily offered it as the encore. Still, even without it, this was a wonderful programme of discovery, performed with both style and conviction.

*****