In their final concert of the season, Martin Pearlman and his Boston Baroque performed an all-Mozart program on Friday, May 7, in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. The performance was repeated on Saturday.
The program featured virtuoso arias that in Mozart’s day would have been performed by a male castrato, a type of voice that appeared in the Sistine Chapel in the late 16th century and became tremendously important in 17th- and 18th-century opera. Castrati, who were mostly Italians, were admired for the power, agility, and penetrating quality of their voices, and were sought after for heroic male roles in opera houses throughout Europe, although trousered female singers occasionally sang these roles, just as they do today. Revivals of Baroque opera in the first half of the 20th century often made the egregious mistake of transposing male soprano parts down to the baritone range, thereby distorting the harmony; more recently, counter-tenors from Alfred Deller to David Daniels have sung these roles, employing highly developed falsetto techniques.
Michael Maniaci, on the other hand, is a natural male soprano, not a counter-tenor. He does not sing falsetto, nor does he have a baritone register. He simply has a larynx that did not grow to full size, so that as his body matured his voice never broke or dropped in pitch. He is able to sing the most demanding arias intended originally for a castrato singer with unusual clarity and purity of intonation as well as staying power.
Pearlman opened the program with the overture to Mozart’s one-act opera from 1786, The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor), a satire on the operatic world and its singers that brilliantly shows off the capacities of this orchestra of period instrumentalists. Supporting the ensemble of nimble strings and winds, pairs of natural horns and trumpets provided rhythmic articulation and harmonic weight, crisply reinforced by John Grimes’s timpani.
In 1772, the 16-year old Mozart was commissioned to write an opera seria for Milan, Lucio Silla (K.135) in which the star singer was to be the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini in the role of Cecilio. In “Il tenero momento,” Cecilio anticipates reunion with his lover, Giunia; in ”Ah se a morirmi chiama” he bids her farewell before fleeing into exile once again. Despite the conventional plot, the youthful Mozart infused these arias with real emotion. Lacking the warmth we have come to associate with the female soprano voice, Maniaci nonetheless conveyed emotional tension by other means: bright, clear tone, a judicious use of vibrato for expressive effect, subtle coloring of long held notes, and inventive ornamentation in extensive coloratura cadenzas. Only his lowest notes were somewhat unfocussed, although they brightened as the evening went on. The concerto-like motet, “Exultate, jubilate” (K.165), a favorite soprano showpiece, was composed for Rauzzini shortly after his appearance in Lucio Silla. After the exuberant opening aria and expressive accompanied recitative, Maniaci’s voice shone in legato style in the aria “Tu virginum corona” followed by the supremely joyful coloratura Alleluia.
With La clemenza di Tito, composed in the last year of his life for the coronation in Prague of Leopold II as king of Bohemia, Mozart turned once again to opera seria. Pearlman conveyed the essentially ceremonial character of the overture, while making the most of its rich orchestration, particularly in the writing for winds, and bringing out the lively fugato in the middle section with incisive clarity. Sesto’s aria “Deh, per questo istante solo,” in which a traitorous courtier begs his emperor for forgiveness, brought Maniaci’s dramatic skills to the fore as he progressed from the moving Adagio opening section to the anguished frenzy of the Allegro conclusion. The evening concluded on a positive note with a spirited performance of the “Haffner” Symphony No. 35, K.385. Composed while Mozart was working on The Abduction from the Seraglio, its Presto finale opens with a gesture reminiscent of basso buffo Osmin.