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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Philippe Jaroussky: Coloratura Alto

One of most gifted new stars of the Early Music revival, which is now becoming an ever more important part of the international opera scene in general, is Philippe Jaroussky, a brilliant young French alto whose remarkably beautiful and flexible voice, coupled with both a precious and precocious musicality, is attracting an ever wider and more enthusiastic audience.

Born in 1978, Jaroussky began his musical studies with the violin and won admission to the Versailles Conservatory, where he soon switched his area of focus to voice, via a short stint of piano study. He received a diploma from the Conservatoire de Paris, having worked there with the Early Music faculty.

The first musical selection, "Pianti, sospiri," from a Vivaldi cantata for voice and continuo, shows the essential Jaroussky: young, vigorous, extremely musical, and absolutely brilliant in his execution of the very demanding fioratura in this piece. I wish to call to attention something that might sound like a strange thing to focus upon, and that is the very obvious delight that these young players and singers bring to their music. This is one of the things that is most attractive about ancient music, and that is the unalloyed pleasure and enthusiasm that accompanies pure music. This is a superb example of ars gratia artis—art for its own sake, art as its own reward. For the musically and aesthetically sensitive music and theater lover, this is the perfect antidote to the vulgar and dreary self importance of verismo, which has come to annoy so many. This is pure music, almost pure magic. Its appeal is instantaneous to those for whom the best music, the ideal music, is something that can be classified as a "sting quartet in Ab," as opposed to "The Mountain King Surveys the Wondrous Beauty of His Realm." The typical post-Wagnerian program music, for me at least, has always been just one step short of a film score. [There is, however, a great exception here—program music is often the ideal format for interactive programs created by music educators to introduce young people to classical music. The utility of such music there is extremely important.] But enough. Back to the 18th century. There is a short spoken introduction to this section, but the radio button moves forward quickly, so you should be able to move it rapidly to the beginning of the musical selection, which starts at 1:25. Also, there are several selections on the video—the first is perfectly adequate on its own:

Aren't they adorable! It's hard to say who is having the most fun; Jaroussky, the harpsichordist or the cellist. It's hard not to fall in love with everyone in the ensemble. This is unalloyed pleasure and musical happiness and it is greatly affecting. I'm well aware that all these young people are "precious and expensive" conservatory types (Jaroussky has spent a large part of his life in conservatories), where not only musical sophistication but even virtuosity are taken for granted, which makes musical execution like this possible. They are so far advanced that they can pretty much forget technique and self-consciousness and relax into the rapturous expression of musical art. That is certainly part of the charm, but it goes beyond that. One can see it easily in another famous alto, Cecilia Bartoli, who has basically chosen to dedicate her life to Baroque music, even musical scholarship, to the dismay of some opera fans who resent the fact that they seem to have lost a breast-beating Amneris in favor of an entire album dedicated to Antonio Salieri or to the many concerts showcasing Vivaldi's music, an area in which she has established herself as a respectable scholar, even to the point of having discovered some of the Prete Rosso's previously undiscovered manuscripts. This is a new breed of independent young singer indeed, and I applaud them.

Finally, here is Jaroussky doing an operatic selection, "Se in ogni guardo," from Vivaldi's Orlando Finto Pazzo (Orlando Feigning Madness). This is the kind of music in which the 18th century castrati excelled, and with which they made splendid livings, attracting huge audiences. My own feeling is that the great bulk of them could not compete with today's altos such as Jaroussky or David Daniels. The pen is mightier than the sword, and technique mightier than the knife! Again, the music starts at 1:35, and the first piece is adequate:

That is so spectacular! I will say, however, that Jaroussky's hopping and bouncing around, while it is amusing to watch, is not the best idea. Great singers have characteristically stood absolutely still when they sing in concert; their entire attention concentrated on the diaphragm and the throat. He is very young, though, and he may well learn to hold it down, lest he take flight on gossamer wing, up, up and away:)

Let's all wish this brilliant young man a continuing career. No one can say what is going to happen, but the signs of stress are everywhere apparent in the operatic repertoire we have all become accustomed to in the last 50 years. The history of elegant singing during the Baroque represents a distinguished past, and if past is indeed prelude to the future, then we have reason to rejoice.


corax said...

bravo jaroussky! bravo sir edmund! a brilliant young singer, brilliantly appreciated here.

i was struck by your felt need to apologize for noting the joie de chanter in these performances. au contraire -- i think that [as usual] you have put your finger right on yet another essential element here. doubtless anyone would be overwhelmed simply by hearing an audio recording [scil. without video footage] of any performance of jaroussky's; but i also cannot help but feel that the video footage is an integral part of our experience of these particular performances. and that the bell cannot, as it were, be unrung: having seen him [them!] perform with such delight, we now inextricably associate that ebullient richness of sound and virtuosity of technique with jaroussky and his equipe -- and, of course, with that very joie de chanter of theirs.

moreover, one can easily imagine that the attempt to bring back a recondite and unfamiliar musical idiom [such as the sound of a man singing alto coloratura] might be fraught with anxiety or doubt. too, one could imagine that 'early' music, or the 'resurrecting' of old traditions, might be seen as the dusty purview of, ahem, only the most mature musicians. in view of that, it's deeply important that these effervescent young performers are not only doing such work, but also are doing it with such obvious gusto.

i couldn't be more pleased, or more hopeful. music, i firmly believe, erupted into the human experience in order to communicate all the things that verbal language cannot. and perhaps chief among these things is the visceral sensation of joy. is it any wonder that we find ourselves infected by the exuberance of the joyous young musicians in these videos?

Edmund St. Austell said...

My word, what lovely sentiments! And I could not agree more. You make a very telling point when you refer to their très évident bonheur in producing such lovely music, something that might be thought to be the (ahem:) dusty purview of not only the most mature musicians, but just possibley of the most mature (say it, my friend, "ancient") connoisseurs! Yes, that is indeed fortuitous...these are hardly more than children. And I share your enthusiasm for the future. This is SUCH a good sign, as is the whole Early Music Movement. Regarding which, incidentally, have you seen the clip of Landowska playing the Bach excerpt on that huge Pleyel of hers? If not, let me know, and I'll send you the site.

corax said...

i have indeed, but only because you furnished it! now i want the DVD. she is my great-grand-teacher on the harpsichord, you know [through kirkpatrick].

Anonymous said...

A very interesting article again. Jarussky is popular among our operatic fans. He is brilliant, I totally agree.

This music was written for aristocracy and requires “aristocratic” performances. These musicians (Jarussky, Bartoli and others ) are some sort of “operatic aristocracy”, in my opinion. Bartoli is one of my favorite singers.

It’s very strange to hear a mezzo-soprano or an alto performing a role of a Roman warrior or an Emperor, like it is Mozart’s operas, for example . But it seems to me, that the composer’s choice of singers had nothing to do with gender. The main goal was to create the music of the highest quality, that would be opposite to everything rough, “peasant” and uncultured.


Edmund St. Austell said...

An excellent comment, as always, and you invariably seem to bring a new perspective to the discussion. I'm very happy to hear that Jaroussky is popular in Russia, and you make a great observation about the aristocratic component in composer choice of roles. I had not previously thought of it in quite that way, but you are sbsolutely right. As an accomplished artist yourself, you see right through to the core of artistic matters. Yes, refinement, and music for its own sake--the anti-verismo pill:) This is how it all started in the first place, hundreds of years ago, and now it may be returning to its roots, except this time it will be for an audience whose "aristocratic" nature will be defined by refined taste, as opposed to medals, titles, and family pedigree. The descent into so-called realism is actually an anomaly in the long history of opera, and is now *possibly* in the process of burning itself out. Hard to say at this point, because there is still plenty of the "bread and butter" repertoire out there, but for the first time in a long time, it is being forced to compete with an increasingly energized Baroque revival.

Great observation. Many thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I work at the Barbican and I am very excited that Jaroussky will be performing here in December. Thanks for the YouTube links - they are now saved in my favourites :) Here is another video of Jaroussky taken from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much. Glad to be helpful, and thank you for the additional link. Enjoy the show! I'm sure you'll love him!

Jing said...

I am pleased to comment on both Jaroussky and your fascinating article on voice types prior to this one. You shed wonderful light on how silly and arbitrary these labels can be: sub-sub categories within sub categories, etc. The historical context you provide really is invaluable and quite helpful. One aspect of this, it seems to me, is how arbitrary voice categories get pegged to certain styles of performance. (see your excellent thoughts on the heldentenor.) A male alto like David Daniels has come under fierce criticism whenever he has ranged beyond the baroque, and when he sings in a full round tone with vibrato, instead of the flat "ethereal" tone insisted on by certain "experts" on baroque and early music. Though he could never (and I hope never) be called a "cross-over" artist, yet he can sing in a modern idiom quite wonderfully and with real assurance and passion. (As attested to by many YouTube clips.)

Jaroussky is totally new to me! Where have I been? Stunning and appealing in every way. And, as far as I'm concerned, he can jump around all he wants. Maybe not as Sesto or Caesar, perhaps, but if he "jumps for joy" that's okay with me - maybe we need more of that. Who knows?

I was stuck by your observations about a new generation of singers training and then performing in the conservatory setting. In the spirit of encouraging people of such intelligence and artistry as Jaroussky and Bartoli (and Daniels) to sing what they want to sing and where they want to, this seems fine. It does raise for me the larger and ever-present question of the cultural and economic context, sources of financial support and so on. Conservatories can, I suppose, become cloisters -where artists, like monks, can go about their calling secure, and perhaps even oblivious to the swirling world about them. The world of early music is, in fact, a world - perhaps unto itself in some ways.

Well, Edmund, pardon my half-informed ramblings. But your wonderful pieces to expand my horizons, and for that I'm quite grateful!

Edmund St. Austell said...

What wonderful comments! I say, you really must promise to do a guest piece for the blog. Maybe on Daniels? The invitation is out; just say the word! I agree with all you say, and share the concern you raise toward the end. The big question is the economic one. Yes, the purity of the conservatory atmosphere, the sheer aesthetic delight of even aggressively elitist programs of this kind are all very appealing to the discriminating listener. I cannot bring my self to ask "if it will play in Peoria," but sadly my mind is generating such phrases and thoughts. It probably won't, but is that necessarily a disaster? Perhaps Cecilia Bartoli is a model for the movement. She is clearly surviving, and doing fairly well, I suppose. You may have seen the comment immediately above your own, from the writer who works at the Barbican, in Britain, and is eagerly looking forward to a visit by Jaroussky in December. My faithful Russian fried, N.A., also above, assures us that Jaroussky is very popular in Russia. And I have the sense that Andreas Scholl is doing fine. Granted, there are no fur-lined gilded railway cars, No prima donna antics, or expensive villas in Italy. I think it is definitely possible, however, that the movement can survive economically IF, and it's a big IF, the singers and players have the stamina to do a LOT of concertizing, and will settle for an average living. We shall see. Let's wish them luck! And thanks again for the superb comments.

JD Hobbes said...

Well, look at the past when starving artistis worked incredibly hard to find a patron who could support (and feed) them. That kind of pressure can force competition and quality. Who knows what the result will be?

Edmund St. Austell said...

Good observation! I have to admit that I had not thought of that, but historically speaking you are absolutely right. In the case of men who sang alto especially, the few who made history were well paid in their day, and the rest, one assumes did not make much. Cultural Darwinism:)

Thanks for a characteristically interesting comment.