Philippe Jaroussky

French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky provides a modern glimpse of the rock star status enjoyed by the 18th century's castrati.
Philippe Jaroussky

   If anybody can provide modern audiences with a glimpse of the rock star status that the castrati Farinelli and Carestini enjoyed in the 18th century, it would have to be the brilliant French countertenor, Philippe Jaroussky.

The Melbourne Recital Centre stage featured two large banners sporting portraits of these rival castrati and the program featured selected works from the rival composers who created such a splendid showcase for their extraordinary talents. Handel and Porpora met headlong in London, where anybody who was anybody went to evaluate their relative merits and barrack for their respective stars. Handel is still a household name, but Porpora has faded into comparative obscurity, despite Gerard Corbiau’s 1995 film Farinelli, which featured Porpora’s wondrous ‘Alto Giove’.

Sunday’s concert definitely put Porpora on the musical map for the audience. Judging from the response, Porpora well and truly won any contest between the two composers, perhaps unfairly since what we heard was possibly the best work of Porpora and a very small part of the abundant treasures of Handel. Whichever composer could be considered the winner on this occasion, there can be no dispute regarding the supreme talents of their interpreter – perhaps ‘re-creator’ would be a more appropriate word given the importance of ornamentation in these arias.

Paul Dyer’s sense of theatre gave Jaroussky’s entrance a musical focus. After a suitably festive opening to the concert (and the season) with a Handel overture, complete with trumpets and timpani, Dyer forestalled any clapping by continuing into an aria from Oreste without a pause as Jaroussky came onto the stage. Being a dramatic ‘tempest’ aria, a device used to convey a character’s emotional turmoil, ‘Agitato da fiere tempeste’ was an ideal choice. From the first note it was apparent that Jaroussky’s voice had developed since he was last in Australia. While retaining beauty and clarity, which are hallmarks of his sound, greater power and substance were immediately evident. His astonishing flexibility was as thrilling as ever.

Just in case there was a suspicion that the emphasis might be on vocal pyrotechnics, his second aria from Adrianna in Creta displayed a capacity for pathos and the nobility of sentiment for which Carestini was renowned. Superb breath control led to some ravishing sustained notes and this, coupled with his impressive range and agility, made for a compelling musical experience.

Jaroussky’s mastery of the vocal technique demanded by the highly florid Porpora arias before and after interval was, if anything, even more impressive, particularly in ‘Alto Giove’. Beginning with a most beautifully controlled ‘messa di voce’ and ornamented for maximum emotional impact, his singing of this aria was totally seductive. It is hard to imagine a more perfect interpretation. The capacity audience was ecstatic.

Programming Locatelli’s Violin Concerto after such a showstopper was less than ideal. Shaun Lee-Chen was the 2007 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year and is a regular player with the ABO. For a debut performance as a soloist with the orchestra, such a virtuosic piece was a very tall order indeed. Nevertheless, despite some problems with intonation, Lee-Chen’s sweet, shiny tone and formidable dexterity provided some exciting moments.

Paul Dyer directed his orchestral forces with his accustomed ‘brio’, giving a spirited account of three movements from Handel’s Water Music and providing sympathetic support to the soloists.

Although Handel arias concluded the body of the concert, such was the enthusiastic reception from the audience that two encores were given: one from each composer. Porpora’s ‘Nell’attendere’, complete with a playful duet between singer and trumpet, brought the concert to a fitting close.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Conductor: Paul Dyer

Countertenor: Philippe Jaroussky

Baroque violin: Shaun Lee-Chen


HANDEL Overture to Deborah HWV 51
HANDEL Aria ‘Agitato da fiere tempest’ from the pasticcio Oreste HWV A11, HG 48/102
HANDEL Recitative ‘Oh patria’ & aria ‘Sol ristoro di mortali’ from Arianna in Creta HWV 32
HANDEL Water Music Suite in D major HWV 349
PORPORA Aria ‘Se pietoso il tuo labbro’ from Semiramide riconosciuto
PORPORA Aria ‘Mira in cielo’ from Arianna a Nasso
PORPORA Aria ‘Dall’amor più sventurato’ from the pasticcio Orfeo
PORPORA Aria ‘Alto giove’ from Polifemo
LOCATELLI Violin Concerto Op. 3 No. 1 in D major
HANDEL Aria ‘Mi lusinga a dolce affetto’ from Alcina HWV 34
HANDEL Recitative ‘Ove son’ and Aria ‘Qui ti sfido’ from Arianna in Creta HWV 32 


Melbourne Recital Centre

17 March

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney

22, 23 & 25 March

Heather Leviston

Monday 18 March, 2013

About the author

Heather Leviston is a Melbourne-based reviewer.