A male soprano – essentially a countertenor who is comfortable singing in the soprano range – is still considered somewhat of a rara avis. Those with the talents of 26-year-old Venezuelan singer Samuel Mariño, who even sings Verdi, are rarer still.

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Mariño’s debut solo recording was inspired by a 1746 concert in London featuring the music of Handel and Gluck. What an extraordinary occasion that must have been, given the generational and stylistic differences between the two composers. None of the music performed in that concert has however been included here. Instead, we have a selection of operatic excerpts by the two composers, most of which can be attached to specific singers, including the soprano castrati Gioacchino Conti and Giovanni Belardi. The result is an enjoyable and illuminating program which shows not only Mariño’s vocal artistry to its best advantage but highlights the abundant HIP credentials of the Handel Festival Orchestra Halle under Michael Hofstetter.

First Handel, and four arias from Berenice, Regina di Egitto, all of which – including the exquisite Care selve – allow Mariño room for some astonishing feats of embellishment, not least in the vocal cadenzas. Sigismondo’s aria Quella fiamma from Arminio, which closes the Handel section, is a veritable tour-de-force for singer and obligato oboe.

In the Gluck, Mariño’s flair for drama is as palpable as the shift in musical style (Gluck was around 30 years Handel’s junior). Here, Berenice’s expansive scena and aria, and Demetrio’s tranquil Già che morir, both from Antigono, bracket that opera’s three-movement sinfonia, which the thrilling, incisive playing elevates to a genuine proto-symphony.

Two contrasting, major-key arias, from La Sofonisba and La Corona (both world premiere recordings), provide their own contrast to the spectacular minor-key finale, Oronte’s Care pupille from Il Tigrane. Here, as throughout, Mariño often eschews vocal colour as a means of expression, focussing more on variations in tempo, articulation and ornamentation. It’s a gamble that pays off every time.

Title: Care Pupille
Works: Arias by Handel and Gluck
Performers: Samuel Mariño s, Handel Festival Orchestra Halle/Michael Hofstetter
Label: Orfeo C998201

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