The New Countertenors–Top of the Crop

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Remember when it was easy to pick between countertenors? You had Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, depending on where you lived. Then along came James Bowman, Paul Esswood, and Drew Minter. Recordings were relatively scarce, devoted to lute songs and/or folk songs, and Baroque masses and oratorios. Most of these men had diaphanous sounds, not trained for the opera house, and hardly anyone knew that Vivaldi had written dozens of operas with castrati as star singers; women were cast in castrati roles in Handel operas (or the parts were sung by baritones), and names like Vinci, Leo, and Broschi were footnotes. In addition, the countertenor range rarely went above the G atop the treble clef.

With the release of the 1994 film Farinelli a whole new audience found interest in the strange exotic sound and phenomenon of the castrato, even if the voice used in the film was a digital composite of mezzo/contralto Ewa Podles and countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. That same year David Daniels drew international fame as Nero at New York State’s Glimmerglass Festival, repeating his triumph at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996; in 1997 he won the coveted Richard Tucker Award (the first countertenor to do so) and his recording career began that year as well. He introduced the world to a more muscular tone, rounder, more focused, less “heady”, and more even from top to bottom. He also added a tone or two to both ends of the scale.

By then the interest in Baroque opera had taken hold, and since then it has been raining countertenors. Some have already come and gone—Jochen Kowalski and Brian Asawa come to mind—while others have become superstars. Most have been altos (the term Alfred Deller preferred); lately there are sopranos, both in tone and range. Phillipe Jaroussky’s very feminine sound is beautiful and backed up with fine focus; Michael Maniaci’s higher range—about a fifth above the “norm”—wanted for pitch accuracy and could be strident; Max-Emanuel Cencic seems superhuman, with what basically is an alto sound that can become fascinatingly ferocious at the top. And here we have the young Australian David Hansen, who is sure to cause controversy.

The “Rivals” of the CDs title are Farinelli, Caffirelli, Carestini, and other castrati of the 18th century. Hansen’s voice, as far as you can tell on a recording (backed up by some YouTube studying), is a good size and has a decidedly soprano timbre. He can swell a note from a nice pianissimo to forte and add or subtract vibrato. The registers are equalized and the range is stupendous: in a run near the end of Broschi’s “Son qual nave” (from Artaserse), here performed in a version that includes some of Farinelli’s ornaments, Hansen manages a cascade from a low F-sharp to a high C-sharp and almost back around. In the same aria he takes 178 notes in one 20-second run (I didn’t count them; the statement is in the notes and I listened, awestruck—by the way, it’s at 4:37). He never drops a note. It’s stupendous.

But you can’t help hearing in the octave leaps up to high A-flat (around 3:00), those A-flats come out vaguely as squawks. He can sustain a high B like Joan Sutherland. The mellow “B” section of the aria exhibits some of the loveliest singing you’ll ever hear from any voice range: the legato is pure; the diction, while not in the Bartoli class, is excellent; the knowledge of precisely where the long cantilena is going is exquisitely musical.

The CD opener, from Vinci’s Semiramide Riconosciuta (“In braccio a mille furie”), with brass and strings back-up, is a wild ride, with big leaps, and Hansen’s decorations in the da capo are splendid; an aria from the same composer’s Il Medo (“Sento due fiamme in petto”) is a lament with sad oboes. Hansen’s trills are both expressive and lovely. “Talor che irato e il vento”, from Leo’s Andromaca (another “raging wind and tempestuous sea” aria), is a brief stunner, and here you could learn a lot about the art of embellishment. A sustained B-flat near the aria’s close—utterly vibrato-free—will astound many; the coldness of the tone makes it sound almost sharp, and those allergic to this kind of aching purity will complain. Indeed, throughout these performances it’s the brightness of Hansen’s tone that may cause the controversy mentioned above: when he sings in the middle of his range and lower there is great warmth and sensitivity—“Cara sposa” from Bononcini’s Griselda is filled with sadness and regret. But the upper octave—the “money notes” that make him so special—can be a bit strident.

The secret is not to listen to the CD’s entire 70 minutes in one sitting—but that is as true here as it has been with Pavarotti, Nilsson, et al. In brief, Hansen is a miraculous singer with a unique sound, spectacular technique, and a strong streak of machismo when called for, even on high. And those who do not like the countertenor voice in general will not be able to make their usual “He sounds like my Aunt Hilda” excuses; like David Daniels and Cencic, this is a voice backed up by strength and a fierce desire to communicate. I hope to hear much more of Hansen, but wouldn’t mind if he weren’t recorded quite so close-up. I’ve given short shrift to Alessandro de Marchi’s Academia Montis Regalis simply because they are ideal. Most of the arias here are recorded for the first time: lovers of great singing and the Baroque are in for a treat.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: Rivals – Arias for Farinelli & Co.

LEONARDO VINCI: Il Medo, Semiramide Riconosciuta, Alessandro; LEONARDO LEO: Andromaca, Demetrio; RICCARDO BROSCHI: Artaserse; ANTONIO MARIA BONONCINI: Griselda

  • Hansen, David (countertenor)
  • Academia Montis Regalis, Alessandro de Marchi


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