Putting aside modern humor and horror about the “unkind cut” that made his career possible, by all accounts castrato Girolamo Crescentini was an incredible artist who enjoyed a rich, varied career. Even after a late start and failed London opening, Crescentini went on to resounding successes in opera houses throughout Italy as well as Lisbon and Vienna. Praised for his pure tone, expressiveness and tasteful technical displays, he eventually served as one of Napoleon’s favorite court musicians before settling down as director of the Naples Conservatory. On Wednesday night the Boston University Center for Early Music honored Crescentini and upheld his artistic values in their recital, “Napoleon’s Castrato: A Tribute to Girolamo Crescentini.”
Mezzo Mary Gerbi described the selection of songs composed by Crescentini and excerpts from Niccola Zingarelli’s opera Giulietta e Romeo as a “vocal massage” when compared to the Baroque. While distinct from Handel and Vivaldi’s cascading style, nonetheless this was, unapologetically and rewardingly, singers’ music, treating the voice as an organic, lyrical but awe-inspiring instrument, with plenty of room for modest exhibition set to texts about young love, unrequited love, enflamed love, etc. It’s not the psychological profundity or character painting of better-known composers, but who cares when the music is performed well?
Gerbi and male soprano Robert Crowe clearly enjoyed the direct, distinctly Italian charm of these works. Crowe sang Crescentini’s “Dal Di Ch’io Ti Mirai” (“From the Day You Appeared to Me”) playfully, with the little upper register twists of “Se Spiegar Potessi Oh Dio” (“If I Could Tell, Oh God”) sweet and delicate. Throughout Crescentini’s solo cantata Il Primo Amore, lines like “…to make war in place of peace” stood out beyond context or translation, and the aria “Bella Fiamma Del Mio Core” (“Beautiful Flame of My Heart”) highlighted Crowe as a period singer who isn’t afraid of portamento or hitting the back of the house, as well as a male soprano with rich, even production across registers.
Gerbi’s voice matched Crowe in terms of power and feeling while adding restraint to “Ecco Quel Fiero Istante” (“Now Is the Fiery Moment”) and “Dove Rivolgo, O Dio” (“God, Where Shall I Turn?). “Languir d’Amore” (“Suffering from Love”) was an ironically lush depiction of broken-hearted depression, capped off with trumpet-like projection. The long arches of “Ch’io Mai Vi Possa” (That I May Never) showed off Gerbi’s impressive control as well as Crescentini’s high standards.
Moving from chamber works to the opera house, Crescentini sang Zingarelli’s Giulietta e Romeo to popular acclaim in Paris alongside another Napoleonic favorite (and imperial girlfriend!), contralto Giuseppina Grassini. Even in a piano reduction, Gerbi and Crowe opted out of the light, polite style that often passes for early music and reveled in the stylized, relentlessly melodic theatricality. Crowe’s elided phrasing in the Act III recitative conveyed Romeo’s excitement at the thought of his beloved. His Rondo “Ombra Adorata” (“Sweet Rests of Love,” attributed to Zingarelli but probably composed by Crescentini) was an effortless but engaged tour de force, with murmuring, then booming dynamics and rapid range jumping. Gerbi started Juliet’s second act prayer in a gripping monochromatic tone before lighting into the double-time section and tortuous cadenzas. The singers teamed up for a smooth, strong blend in two duets, including Zingarelli’s viciously abrupt finale.
The combination of rich voices with Peter Sykes’s fortepiano (BU’s 1976 Robert Smith copy of a Könnicke ) beaming underneath, added transparency as well as depth here and throughout the program. Sykes’s rhythmic Overture to Giulietta e Romeo made sure no one missed the sound of a full orchestra. Guitarist Victor Coelho accompanied Crowe and Gerbi with similarly sensitive approach for several of the songs. This was an all-around stunning program, and while the music may not be familiar, and its origins a source of modern discomfort, its values are pretty much timeless.
Andrew J. Sammut also writes for Early Music America and All About Jazz and blogs on the pop of yestercentury on his blog, Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic. He also plays clarinet and lives in Cambridge.