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 Recording of the Week, Philippe Jaroussky sings Cavalli

I mean no back-handed compliment when I say that I look forward to the cover-art almost as much as the contents whenever a new album from countertenor Philippe Jaroussky is announced, and he doesn’t disappoint with today’s offering – a collection of opera arias by the seventeenth-century Italian composer Francesco Cavalli, on which he appears decked out in white ruffles and a glittering mask of many colours to announce that it’s carnival-time in Venice. It’s the perfect visual shorthand for a recital that explores decadence and disguise as well as the kaleidoscopic invention of one of the most prolific early operatic composers, who studied with Monteverdi and whose fifty-year career spanned a period which saw the genre evolve at an astonishing rate. Gods and heroes in extremis jostle for space with lusty satyrs and shepherds on the make, sublime laments sit cheek-by jowl with stomping tarantellas and snatches of street-songs, and the spirit of dance infuses everything.

Philippe JarousskyIt all fits Jaroussky like a particularly well-tailored glove: at 40, there’s something of the Dorian Gray about the French countertenor, the seraphic sweetness and silveriness of voice showing no signs of tarnish twenty years into a busy career. There’s a refreshing and often beguiling naturalness to his vocal delivery throughout, which suits this music uncommonly well – like Monteverdi, Cavalli placed great emphasis on declamation and clarity of text rather than the vocal gymnastics which would come to dominate opera once the gladiatorial battles of the great castrati got underway a few decades after his death, and much of the drama here stems from Jaroussky's crystal-clear diction and simplicity of utterance. (The title-track Ombra mai fu is a case in point: in the hands of Cavalli and Jaroussky, the Persian king's serenade to a palm-tree has an airy, straightforward charm that couldn't be further away from the mock-heroic grandstanding of Handel's setting for the temperamental divo Caffarelli 84 years later).

His vocal suppleness and steadiness, too, remain undiminished, which is a particular delight in Cavalli’s many long-breathed laments (try ‘Uscitemi dal cor’ from Erismena, or Apollo’s outpouring of grief at seeing Dafne’s arboreal transformation in Gli Amori d’Apollo e di Dafne), where he eschews the temptation to bend pitches for expressive effect or to gild the lily by playing with vibrato and audible gear-changes after the fashion of Cecilia Bartoli and the many singers who’ve followed in her interpretative footsteps.

Not so his Warner stable-mate Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who has a whale of a time over-egging the pudding in her single appearance: the Canadian contralto camps things up with gleeful abandon in a remarkable scene from Calisto, in which the chaste but highly-sexed Linfea sings of her longing to experience the delights of the marriage-bed (once a ring is safely on her finger, of course) before sassily rebuffing the advances of Jaroussky’s lecherous yet strangely eloquent young satyr, who whines that her reluctance is surely due to his apparent youth and erotic inexperience. (‘My tail is small and soft and still growing’, he complains, in distinctly earthy counterpoint to the high-flown laments elsewhere on the album). There are also two delectable contributions from another Warner/Erato singer, the young Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth (Amore to Jaroussky’s Orfeo on last year’s recording of Gluck’s masterpiece, and a rising star in her own right), who joins for numbers from Elena and Eritrea in which Cavalli tips his cap to the great final duet from his mentor Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, composed a decade earlier.

It’s wonderful, too, to catch a rare glimpse of Jaroussky’s gifts for comedy as the soubrettish shepherd Clarindo in La virtù de’ strali d’Amore (the tinkling music-box introduction to this one is a joy) and above all the bewildered young page Nerillo, an innocent abroad in the big city in Ormindo, thoroughly disconcerted by the onslaught of caresses and dinner-invitations he’s receiving on the bustling streets.

Do judge this book by its cover: the music-making is every bit as flamboyant, sparkling and colourful as the art-work suggests.

Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor), Artaserse

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC