Editor’s Choice: Opera, July 2015

Fifty years ago, the idea of “The Five Countertenors” would have been Alfred Deller, John Whitworth, Russell Oberlin and, err… Even 30 years ago a quintet of such voices would have likely encapsulated half of the known suspects. Nowadays, however, the countertenor seems almost as common as the next voice-type, its superstars are fêted on world stages and their fans are becoming as opinionated as those of rival divas from way back when.

The beauty of Decca’s latest recital disc, though, is not just the presence of five of today’s finest guys who sing high, it’s an opportunity to explore repertoire in a programme where most of us would probably only be familiar with the two Handel arias (and those not that common either).

Comparisons are odious as they say so I’ll begin at the beginning with Romanian-born German countertenor Valer Sabadus (pictured above) who gets a couple of stonkers: Jommelli’s catchy Spezza lo stral piagato from Tito Manlio and a superbly dark, theatrically intense aria from Gluck’s Demetrio. His silky smooth voice is high (but not the highest here) and his tone deliciously plangent. The Catalan Xavier Sabata is probably the lowest voice and the finest dramatist in the pack. His gorgeously rich tone caresses its way around Ottone’s lament from Handel’s Agrippina and he whips up a storm in an aria from Porpora’s Ifigenia in Aulide. The Croatian superstar Max Emanuel Cenčić needs no introduction and offers a pair of plums with a moving aria from Galuppi’s Penelope and a bravura display from Ferdinando Bertoni’s version of Tancredi.

The two least known to me were Ukranian countertenor Yuriy Mynenko and South Korean-born Vince Yi. Mynenko is a thrilling vocal actor and his clarion Crude furie degl orridi abissi from Handel’s Serse is the album’s most obvious knockout. His other aria from JC Bach’s Temistocle is nearly as electrifying. Yi is the highest voice on show with arias by Mysliveček and Hasse. It’s a fascinating instrument (he has a solid top B!) if a little shrill at times and ocasionally detached from the text. 

The Five Countertenors is a superb disc – a chance to hear some memorable arias from some of the less-usual composers as well as to compare a range of timbres, vocal styles and musical personalities. With George Petrou and his spunky period band Armonia Atenea driving it all along like a pig to market, and captured in gloriously natural studio sound, this disc is a veritable eye and ear-opener.

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