A cast of five countertenors and one tenor performing an opera by Handel contemporary Leonardo Vinci may look like a long evening to those who don’t appreciate the high male voice, but Baroque lovers hoping for a triplet and trill fest as well as some vocal drag got all they wanted in this concert version of Artaserse.

Leonardo Vinci
Leonardo Vinci

The idea of such a strangely balanced cast (by modern standards) derives from the fact that women were banned from the Roman theatrical stages when Artaserse premièred there in February 1730: with the exception of a tenor voice, it was written for castrati who not only embodied men of high standing and morals, as was the custom, but also had to replace the female singers. Now, with the steady progress of countertenor singing over the last 20 years, Baroque music specialist Diego Fasolis and singer Max Emanuel Cenčić thought the time ripe for an ambitious project where countertenors replace castrati who replace women – not only in a recording studio, but live in various houses that specialize in Baroque music.

Contrary to what might be assumed, this opera is not a very recent discovery, but has been known to musical insiders since the Musikwerkstatt Vienna’s critically acclaimed production from 2007, which sported two countertenors. Vienna, along with Naples and Florence, was also quick at setting up performances shortly after the work’s world première, which was also soon after Vinci’s untimely death in the same year. It is believed that the score was brought there by Vinci’s librettist and fellow Neapolitan Pietro Metastasio, a much-demanded poet of the time whose libretti (among them L’Olimpiade and Ezio) inspired many others (like Mazzolà for La clemenza di Tito). Artaserse was, in his own words, his “favourite child” and a popular plot for more than 40 operas.

“Popular” is also an inevitable word when it comes to mentioning Philippe Jaroussky, who took on the title role. His challenge (like any singer’s in his league) is to fulfil the high expectations set in him, and he didn’t disappoint. At the beginning, there was a tiny scratch in high legato notes, but that soon disappeared with the voice getting warmer and he gave a beautiful and credible rendition of the young prince who is overwhelmed by the death of his father and whose friend Arbace seems to be the murderer. The latter role was sung by Franco Fagioli, who impressed with a fruity mezzo timbre as well as some daredevil coloratura that went seamlessly from the soprano range down to low tenor notes. His was the most memorable showcase aria of the piece, “Vo solcando un mar crudele”, where Vinci depicted a storm at sea by the use of wavy coloratura interspersed with rising legato crescendo, thus creating a prototype of nature-inspired arias that soon became popular.

One of the two queens of the night was Valer Barna-Sabadus, who sings in the soprano range with a pure and silky tone, seemingly without effort. His Semira, Arbace’s sister who is in love with Artaserse, was delivered with style and he also took on the challenge of acting out the feminine in his role – when told by stage father Artabano that he was to marry General Megabise, he gave a pout worthy of Netrebko.

The other queen was actually a princess, namely Artaserse’s sister Mandane and embodied by Cenčić in a glittering white and golden frock coat over red harem pants – certainly the eyecatcher of the evening. His duet with Fagioli was a highlight and a textbook example of Baroque understatement: While Mandane’s words rebuff Arbace, the music speaks of nothing but love. Yuriy Mynenko’s timbre doesn’t come up to the others, but he gave a fine performance as Megabise.

The villain Artabano (Arbace and Semira’s father) was given by Daniel Behle, whose tenor singing, especially regarding flexibility and intonation, was among the best heard in Vienna lately. In this piece, he literally goes over bodies to ascend to the throne, but is ultimately forgiven.

The Concerto Köln, one of the longer-serving period bands, benefited from Diego Fasolis’ almost dance-like approach to conducting (partly) from the harpsichord. It was amusing how, with all the excellence on stage, he often brought back the attention to the orchestra by stretching a pause before a final note.

The audience responded enthusiastically, so the evening ended in standing ovations after the final chorus having been given as an encore – not just a great performance was celebrated, but also the uniqueness of the experience and the idea behind it. Most applauded were Fagioli and Barna-Sabadus, but local favourite Cenčić got all the flowers.