Tom Strini
Early Music Now

Handel, master of opera

By - Nov 19th, 2011 10:01 pm
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Daniel Taylor, countertenor.

Castrato singing, by all accounts, was among the splendors of Western music. The practice of castrating orphan boys to make them sopranos with extraordinary lung power, died out in the 19th century, happily. But the problem of casting in Baroque operas was one of several reasons those works stayed on the shelf for over a century.

One solution is the countertenor, in which fully equipped gentlemen simply train to sing in very high ranges to cover the music that Handel and others wrote for castrati. Countertenor Daniel Taylor, who sang from Handel operas Saturday on an Early Music Now program, is the best I’ve ever heard. His voice is big, beautiful, rich and agile. He guides it with unerring feel for the sentiments of the words and the direction of the phrase. He ornaments brilliantly and with a historian’s sense of style.

Taylor is artistic director of the Theatre of Early Music, a fluid group that on this occasion comprised soprano Deborah York, violinists Cynthia Roberts and Edwin Huizinga, violist David Miller, cellist Amanda Keesmaat, harpsichordist Eric Milnes, and David Jacques, who filled in the continuo on Baroque guitar.

They sang and played selections from Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, operas Handel composed and staged with his company in the 1720s in London, when Italian-language opera was all the rage there. These arias and duets are extravagantly emotional in that one-feeling-at-a-time way of the Baroque, with each piece or section devoted to the joy, ache or rage of love. Phrases expand, sigh or drive as the sentiment demands. The singers and players understood and fully realized them.

This music is also extravagantly virtuosic for the singers. Both York and Taylor negotiated fleet scales and arpeggios with ease and applied the most astonishing ornaments when Handel instructs them to repeat a section, most often as a da capo. When York showed her stuff on the da capo repeat of Bel piacere (from Rinaldo), Roberts played the melody straight on her violin. The illuminating contrast between the two version showed just how far York went, which was surely in line with period practice.


Soprano Deborah York.

Taylor took ornamentation a step further in Domero, from Giulio Cesare. He dropped out of countertenor guise and into his natural baritone for certain words, to startling effect. A couple of critics have taken him to task for the inauthenticity of such a stunt. They have a point, as this would not have occurred in Handel’s time — castrati don’t develop baritone ranges. But this music is first about amazing voices doing amazing things. In spirit, Taylor adhered to Rule No. 1 of late Baroque opera performance practice: If you’ve got it, baby, flaunt it!

This concert, held on the exact date that Early Music Now was founded 25 years ago, took place in the Schwan Concert Hall at Wisconsin Lutheran College. A near-capacity crowd applauded the Theatre of Early Music with gusto.

0 thoughts on “Early Music Now: Handel, master of opera”

  1. Anonymous says:

    You might recall that Taylor used his natural baritone in “Se il cor ti perde” from Tolomeo, NOT in the aria from Giulio Cesare.

    Also, castrati certainly could’ve sung a few low notes – even a female soprano can drop down into a baritone range for a few notes for comic effect if she wants to (and she’s *never* had testicles).

    It’s not that castrati could sing high because they were castrated, it is more that their high notes were qualitatively different.

    Countertenors like Taylor can sing in falsetto (with his testicles) but his falsetto is qualitatively different than that of a castrato.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A good way to get an idea of what castrati sounded like is to listen to a castrato:
    put “Alessandro Moreschi” (1858-1922) into youtube. Personally , I would rather hear Daniel Taylor and a host of other wonderful counter-tenors. Why have surgery when you can sound like that?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the comment, Stephen R., but I just double-checked the program. Tolomeo is a character, Cleopatra’s brother, to be exact, in Giulio Cesare, and Domero is the aria.

    Your point about women being able to drop into baritone range, though, is well made. Come to think of it, I heard just such an excursion at an MSO Pops concert last weekend, when Christiane Noll did some doo-wop bass for comic effect in Big Girls Don’t Cry.:
    — Strini

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