Friday, May 14, 2010

Soprano on the cutting edge

Michael Maniaci in action.

There's a spectre haunting the early music movement.

The spectre of the castrato.

Don't laugh; to some period music professionals, somehow approximating the combination of female range and male lung power typical of the notorious castrati has become a kind of musical holy grail. In a way, it's understandable; period musicians are constantly striving to replicate lost practices and instruments, the better to perform music written prior to the instrumental revolutions of the nineteenth century in the manner in which it was originally played. Their pursuit of this ideal has led to a revolution in our approach to Handel and Bach, and even Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But the one period instrument that seems to lie permanently beyond our postmodern grasp is the voice of the castrato.

No one (so far) has actually suggested we bring back the castrati, of course, for obvious reasons. But the yearning to experience what Mozart and Handel once heard - and wrote music for - is often palpable in the early music world; indeed, it's not too much to say that a small cult of the castrato has sprung up there. The countertenor, of course, has meanwhile become ubiquitous - but even the greatest of these falsetto magicians, it must be admitted, often lack the agility, range, and power of a great soprano. The involution of their technique often mutes, or even blurs, their diction, and as they inch up toward (but usually never quite reach) coloratura territory, they tend to grow more studied and careful.

Thus, I suppose the appearance of the "male soprano" was inevitable - singers who claim that through anatomical or hormonal anomaly, they've retained their pre-pubescent voiceboxes into adulthood. Michael Maniaci (at top), who sang a program of Mozart with Boston Baroque last weekend, is one of the most successful of this rare new breed. Before you ask, the singer claims that during puberty, his vocal chords never lengthened and coarsened as is typical of the average male; aside from that, Maniaci explains, he's just like any other grown man.

How, exactly, his hormones "missed" his larynx, the singer doesn't really explain - but the proof of this kind of thing, as they say, is in the pudding, and I have to admit that at first blush, Maniaci sounds strikingly different from a countertenor. His voice blooms at the top of his range, which is, indeed, up around a coloratura high C, where he's utterly agile and free, throwing off gorgeous top notes seemingly at will. What's curious about Maniaci, however, is that his vocal production is quite uneven. The castrati had voices that smoothly slid down into a high tenor (and there is one extant recording - the last castrato died in 1922! - that hardly dazzles, but does support this claim). But Maniaci's voice weakens as it drops, and then slips off a cliff at its low end (much, to be honest, as a countertenor's does). And to be honest, his diction and phrasing sparkle on his high notes, but blur as he goes further down.

There is, however, that gorgeous top to his voice, which shone brightest in "Ah se a morir mi chiama" from Mozart's Lucio Silla (Maniaci's program was drawn from early works for castrati by the young genius), and especially the joyous "Exsultate, jubilate" (K. 165), which Maniaci sang brilliantly, and which is becoming one of his signature pieces.

Yet one wondered - was Mr. Maniaci that much stronger than a radiant soprano would be in the same parts? It was hard to argue that the timbre of his top notes was so different from those produced by a woman; and while he had power, it wasn't overwhelming power (indeed, plenty of sopranos could have flattened him). What's most striking about him, in fact, is simply that these high C's are coming out of a male body - but this effect in many ways feels cultural, or even political, in its ramifications rather than purely musical. And to me, the image of a woman in male dress, singing, say, the trousers role from Idomeneo (which was originally taken by a castrato) has much the same cultural and political edge. The only difference is that the soprano has the range for the whole role. (Indeed, Mozart wasn't happy with the castrato who first sang in Idomeneo, and rewrote the part for a tenor.)

Such questions of cultural interest vs. musical quality perhaps were top-of-mind for me because in the rest of the concert, which was given over to instrumental Mozart, Boston Baroque often acquitted itself brilliantly. The opening overture from The Impresario, another very early work, was exuberant and charming. The ensemble was less spirited in the following overture to La clemenza di Tito, but still played with warmth and feeling. The "Haffner" symphony, which closed the concert, brought back the high spirits, and seemed to surge along with an energy that was practically rollicking, with light, pointed playing from the winds. Alas, there were some wrong notes squawked by the natural horns right at the end, but somehow this seemed easy to forgive in a performance so splendid in every other respect.