Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky to tackle Farinelli arias at Mandel Hall

Tue Feb 25, 2014 at 4:08 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Philippe Jaroussky will perform music of Handel and Porpora Friday night at Mandel Hall.
Philippe Jaroussky will perform music of Handel and Porpora Friday night at Mandel Hall.

Countertenors may not be taking over the operatic universe, but their profile has certainly risen in the past decade or two. As Baroque opera became more popular, countertenors filled more and more of the roles that were once the domain of mezzo-sopranos and other voice types. Today countertenors like the American David Daniels are genuine stars, drawing large audiences for solo recitals as well as staged performances.

On Feb. 28 the young French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose star has rocketed in recent seasons, will be featured in a concert with the Venice Baroque Orchestra at Mandel Hall. Sponsored by University of Chicago Presents, the program will include vocal and instrumental music by Handel and Handel’s one-time rival, Nicolai Porpora. Porpora was the teacher of the legendary castrato Farinelli, and Jaroussky’s portion of the concert will include three arias the Neapolitan composer wrote for his famous pupil.

“In Europe we have discovered a lot of new composers,” said Jaroussky, who feels as comfortable doing research in a music library as he does performing onstage. “And in the past few years we are rediscovering the music from composers in Naples. You can’t disconnect the art of the castrati from the Neapolitan School. And Porpora was one of the most famous composers from Naples.”

Now in his early 30s, Jaroussky was initially afraid of meeting the spectacularly gifted Farinelli on his own musical turf. At the height of his fame, Farinelli, who was born in 1705, was the 18th-century equivalent of a rock star. Noted for his vast vocal range and stunning technical virtuosity, he was in demand throughout Europe. Countertenors who focus on his repertoire could be accused of harboring a death wish.

“I never wanted to make a CD about Farinelli” Jaroussky admitted, “But when I discovered all the music that Porpora composed for him, I was really surprised that most of it fit quite well with my voice and the color of my voice.”

Jaroussky’s newest CD, titled “Jaroussky/Farinelli/Porpora Arias,” was released by Erato last month. The cover features the handsome, slim Jaroussky, looking very hip in jeans and light blazer, sitting down as if for a tete-a-tete with the bewigged, frock-coated Farinelli. Andrea Marcon conducts the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and Cecilia Bartoli joins Jaroussky for two duets on the disc. The countertenor also appears on Bartoli’s CD titled “Mission” that was nominated for a Grammy this year.

“Porpora is the kind of composer I like to defend,” said Jaroussky. “We may know the name, but we still don’t know the music, which is the most important thing.”

The Mandel Hall program includes Handel for two reasons, said Jaroussky. He worried that an all-Porpora program would be too “musicological” [read “boring”]. And he also wanted to highlight the rivalry that erupted when Porpora and Handel found themselves running rival opera houses in the 1730s in London. Jaroussky will sing arias from Handel’s Alcina and Ariodante, operas that had their premieres in London in 1735.

“I think it’s more entertaining for the audience,” he said, “and to show the audience that the presence of Porpora and Farinelli in London really stimulated the genius of Handel. Because of this battle between [the composers], we have music that we might otherwise never have had.”

Unlike many countertenors, David Daniels among them, who started out aiming to sing in tenor or baritone registers, Jaroussky knew from the beginning that he was a countertenor.

“I know it’s true of a lot of my colleagues,” he said, “but with me I always wanted to sing in the higher register. I met my teacher early, at age 18, and for her it was not weird to work with a young countertenor. For me, it was the easiest way to sing. It was a great pleasure to sing high.

“It’s fantastic, now there are so many different types of [countertenor] voice,” he said. “I’m sure 20 years ago we were thinking that countertenor was better for Bach, Purcell and Handel. But finally, now there’s a new generation who can sing very high and very low with nice projection. More and more I think this voice is considered like the others, not as a special thing.”

This will be Jaroussky’s Chicago debut, and he sounds genuinely excited about visiting the city. His current tour began earlier this month in Los Angeles and includes two other California stops as well as concerts in Kansas City and at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“When you’re a French guy, Chicago is one of the main cities—like New York and San Francisco–that you want to see at least once in your life. It’s a city you really need to know to really know America. I think there you can maybe get a better sense of the American spirit.”

Philippe Jaroussky performms with the Venice Baroque Orchestra with 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mandel Hall.

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2 Responses to “Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky to tackle Farinelli arias at Mandel Hall”

  1. Posted Feb 26, 2014 at 1:30 pm by Sadako Nelson

    Fantastic article!! It is the best article which appeared during the
    PJ’s (Philippe Jaroussky, short) American tour explaining and defining his program with very clear and easy to understand explanation of the music history behind. Thank you very much Mr. Delcoma. Being ardent fan of PJ(Philippe Jaroussky ) since 2007, I traveled to Europe every year to attend his concerts. He is immensely popular in France and EU and called “Star Countertenor”. Because of his immense success on stage and CD sales, and tireless effort of educating and propagating the “countertenor voice”. we now have so many countertenors in Europe to follow PJ. The opera which became obscure because of the lack of countertenor voices are now being able to perform because of the availability of good countertenor voices now. All of us Baroque music fan should be thankful to him and especially the countertenors should never forget PJ’ selfless promotion of the countertenor voice and his colleagues. I am so happy that he is finally able to tour extensively in US(I think he made two or three smaller tours in the last five years in US) to give US audiences opportunities to enjoy his immense artistry and the most beautiful timbre of all the countertenor voices. He is simply sublime. I wish more exposure of him in US will continue. Thanks again Mrs. Delcoma for such a great article.

  2. Posted Apr 07, 2014 at 8:45 pm by Tanya Antimirova

    I discovered Philippe Jaroussky only last summer, despite being interested in baroque musics for years. It is just telling of a huge disconnect between baroque scenery in Europe and in North America. Needless to say, I was enchanted by his voice which is so unlike anyone else’s and impressed by his relentless efforts to promote baroque music and bring back to life music that was undeserving forgotten. I traveled from Toronto to hear him live in NY and Chicago, and it was a wonderful experience. The fact that he is so young, handsome and charismatic is working to attract new, younger listeners and draw their attention to the treasures of baroque music, and eventually, more broadly, baroque culture.

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