Countertenor Andreas Scholl's Arias for Senesino collects operatic arias of the early eighteenth century, written for the castrato Senesino, whose real name was Francesco Bernardi. This focus on the music associated with a single individual has several benefits: it places the listener in the position of an opera goer of Senesino's time, awaiting the next appearance of a performer who can justifiably be called a star, and it illuminates the ways composers tailored music to a particular singer. Composers represented include Handel, who recruited Senesino to sing at London's Royal Academy of Music; Handel's arias are the largest single group, and for Senesino he created lengthy, leisurely arias that allowed the castrato to put his much-chronicled dramatic skills to work. "Cara sposa," from Rinaldo (1711) is an eight-minute example. Arias by such composers as Albinoni, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Lotti, and Nicola Porpora are also included. These are alto castrato arias, touching on such themes as melancholy, prayer, pastoral love, and fears of impending doom. The material is ideally suited to Scholl's voice, which is creamy, expressive, precisely on pitch, and altogether endearing. He fares less well on the disc's few loud, athletic arias of anger and revenge, but for anyone who enjoys the sound of a countertenor - a male voice singing in traditionally female ranges - this is a fine collection from one of the world's top practitioners of the art.
All Music Guide
Reviews: Richard Wigmore / Gramophon Magazine.
An enterprising programme of music composed for the 18th century s star castrato.
For his colleagues, Handel included, Senesino (the Sienese) seems to have been the star castrato from hell: vain, insufferably arrogant, likely to throw a tantrum at the slightest provocation. But for three decades he enraptured audiences in Italy and London with the beauty of his voice (powerful, clear, equal and sweet , according to Johann Quantz) and his mastery of both the pathetic and the brilliant styles. Quantz s description could apply just as well to the far more amenable Andreas Scholl, who has come up with an enterprising programme of arias associated with the temperamental 18th-century castrato, several recorded for the first time. If the Handel items all well known apart from an elegant minuet aria from Flavio contain most of the best tunes, there are many delights elsewhere, including an exultant Scarlatti aria complete with swashbuckling horns, two tenderly expressive numbers by Lotti and a virtuoso rage aria (Stelle ingrate) by Albinoni calculated to bring the house down.
Scholl sings this stunningly, the reams of coloratura dazzlingly even yet never mechanical, and delivered on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of breath. Another highlight is his joyous singing of the Scarlatti aria, where he gives full vent to his resonant middle register. But it is the slower, soulful numbers that remain longest in the memory, above all Cara sposa and the scenas from Rodelinda and Giulio Cesare. In the accompanied recitatives Scholl reveals an eloquence of declamation for which Senesino was famed, while the arias combine liquid, subtly varied tone (including gentle, flutey high notes that recall Alfred Deller) with a command of the long Handelian line. Scholl imaginatively uses the da capos (discreetly ornamented) to enhance the expression, and proves a master of the technique of messa di voce gradually swelling and then softening on long sustained notes that was specially prized in the 18th century. The grace and intensity of the singing are matched by vivid accompaniments from Ottavio Dantone s period band, and caught in a sympathetic acoustic. Enthusiastically recommended, and not just to paid-up Scholl fans.
Also: Kate Bolton /BBCmusic magazine
Despite his porcine features and arrogant temperament, 'il Senesino' had a voice and stage presence that inspired contemporary audiences and composers to wax lyrical. This disc of works written for the alto castrato includes some of Handel's most celebrated arias - among them the ravishing 'Dove sei' from Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare's bellicose 'Al lampo dell'armi' and the heart-stoppingly beautiful 'Cara sposa' from Rinaldo - together with obscure but nonetheless appealing works from operas by Albinoni, Lotti and Alessandro Scarlatti.
It's doubtful that a countertenor could ever quite replicate the unearthly sound of the castrato but Andreas Scholl surely has the same combination of sweetness and fire that so moved 18th-century audiences on hearing Senesino. Scholl's mature voice may have lost the artless purity that made his early performances so moving but he has developed the confidence and showmanship of a seasoned dramatic artist. At times he resorts to certain affected mannerisms - swooping and forcing the voice - but these do not seriously detract from his enviable technique and innate musicianship.
Scholl's collaboration with Accademia Bizantina is proving to be a fruitful one which has breathed life into some of the forgotten delights of Baroque music. Ottavio Dantone coaxes some thrilling playing from the ensemble, combining refined lyricism with flamboyant virtuosity in true Italian style. The effects could make even a 21st-century listener swoon.
And: David Vernier / Classics Today [6/14/2006].
No matter what other varied projects countertenor Andreas Scholl has pursued, he remains at his considerable best when he sings the great Baroque opera arias, especially Handel. Happily, he's back singing what he was born to sing, and these arias, originally composed for the great 18th-century castrato known as Senesino, show why Scholl continues to set the standard for today's impressive cadre of young countertenors, using his voice as naturally and effortlessly as if, well, he were born to it.
If you've heard Scholl before - and if you truly love singing, you have - you may remember hearing him sing one of the arias on this recording, "Aure, deh, per piet?", on a previous disc from 1998, titled Heroes, with Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Although that performance is significantly faster and the voice is noticeably brighter, when compared to Scholl's most recent effort, that rendition shows how consistent an artist Scholl is; although the timbre has changed ever so slightly, the technique and interpretive style are every bit as assured and facile. You can appreciate his performances not only for the overall beauty of his golden sound, but for the smallest details of articulation and phrasing that show uncommon interpretive skill and sensitivity to text and characterization. In other words, his performances are vocally lovely and impressive, but they're also distinctive and they make sense.
Although there are zillions of highlights here, the heart of the program - arias by Scarlatti ("Del ciel sui giri"), Lotti ("Fosti caro agl'occhi miei"), and Handel (the abovementioned "Aure, deh, per piet?" and "Al lampo dell'armi") - offers some of Scholl's most elegant, ardent singing among all of his recordings. The breath control, the cleanly-executed rapid leaps and runs, and of course, his heartbreakingly affecting "dolor" at the end of Handel's "Aure..." are all remarkable and worth many repeated hearings. Scholl is supported by an excellent orchestra, every bit as articulate and sensitive to the music's expressive demands as the singer, and the sound is first rate. Outstanding!
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During the early eighteenth century famous opera singers were the foremost musical celebrities of their age. Many of them discarded their real name in favour of a catchy nickname: the flamboyant stage-name "Farinelli" was destined to cause more excitement among fashionable society than that singer's real name Carlo Broschi. One of the foremost singers of the era was the alto castrato Francesco Bernardi, who earned acclaim, renown and a fair measure of controversy during his career as "Senesino" (the "Sienese").
The dates of Senesino's birth and death, both in his native Siena, are unknown. His first documented operatic appearance was in Venice in the 1707-08 season, where he sang in five operas including Tomaso Albinoni's Engelberta. Over the next few years he sang in Bologna, Genoa and Rome. During the 1715-16 season, Senesino sang six operas in Naples, including Alessandro Scarlatti's Carlo re d'Allemagna. In September 1717, Senesino was engaged for the court opera at Dresden on a lucrative salary and performed in several operas by Antonio Lotti, with whom he had previously worked in Venice. However, Senesino was renowned for being arrogant and insolent, and he was dismissed from Dresden in early 1720 when during rehearsals of Heinichen's Flavio Crispo he refused to sing an aria and tore up another singer's part. Handel had visited Dresden and heard Senesino in Lotti's Teofane, and promptly exploited this opportunity by hiring Senesino to sing for the Royal Academy of Music, a recently established company responsible for producing Italian opera at the King's Theatre in London.
It is a curious aspect of operatic life during this period that librettos and character names could often follow a singer around Europe, even if the musical content changed. While in Venice, Senesino sang in Albinoni's Astarto and performed the role of Rinaldo in two different operas by Ruggieri and Boniventi. Each of these relates closely to an opera Senesino performed in London with different music: he made his London debut in Bononcini's setting of Astarto (November 1720); in 1731 Handel revised the title-role in his setting of Rinaldo for his star asset. "Cara sposa" had been composed in 1711 for Nicolini, but it was one of the elements of the original score that were still good enough for Senesino twenty years later. Lotti's Teofane was the libretto model for Handel's Ottone (1723).
Senesino was reputedly a superb actor with particular skill at accompanied recitatives. The title-roles in Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda are a testament of the musical invention and dramatic genius that Handel conjured for his leading male singer (the "primo uomo"). However, Handel and Senesino did not have a smooth working relationship. After the Royal Academy of Music fell apart in Spring 1728 because there were not enough singers engaged to plan another season, Handel attempted to produce operas in London with some independence from his former employers, but initially resolved to achieve this without his star castrate Senesino's replacement Bernacchi was not popular, so the awkward celebrity was persuaded to return to London for the 1730-31 season.
During the last few years of their collaboration, Handel became increasingly experimental with his music dramas. Senesino sang in the first public performances of the early English oratorios Esther (1732) and Deborah (1733), but it is possible that Handel pushed Senesino into undignified extreme dramatic territory that did not suit the singer's vanity with an astonishing mad scene in Orlando (1733). Soon afterwards, Senesino defected to the newly formed "Opera of the Nobility", for whom he sang in operas by Porpora, Bononcini and Hasse between 1733 and 1736. While Handel continued composing Italian operas for another few years before concentrating solely on English works, his rivals gave up at the end of the 1736-37 season. Senesino returned to Italy and sang at Florence for two years before giving his last known performances in Porpora's // trionfo di Camilla at Naples in 1740.