'Through his effortless line, countertenor Iestyn Davies revivifies Guadagni's Orphic powers. He is particularly breathtaking in works by Handel, Arne and John C Smith, all of which were designed to show off the castrato's pellucid timbre … A refreshingly ambitious and superbly realised recording' (BBC Music Magazine)
'If Guadagni was noted for the delicacy of his phrasing and the richness of character in his voice, Davies fully emulates him in these performances of arias by Handel, Hasse and Arne, with defining interpretations of extracts from Gluck’s Orfeo and an eloquently poised aria by Guadagni himself. Arcangelo lends exquisite instrumental support' (The Daily Telegraph)
'By all accounts Guadagni put tonal beauty and dramatic insight before vocal display, and Davies’s unforced timbre, exemplary intonation and sense of style brings out the nobility of the music he inspired. Arcangelo, Jonathan Cohen’s ensemble, also rises to C. P. E. Bach’s stunning Symphony in D' (The Times)
'Davies gives us the lovely 'The raptur'd soul' … and David's ravishing 'O Lord, whose mercies numberless' from Saul, and Cyrus's bravura show stopper, Destructive War, from Belshazzar … Davies sings them superlatively well' (The Sunday Times)
'The superb young countertenor Iestyn Davies … It's a beautiful recital: 78 minutes of pure bliss for connoisseurs and beginners alike' (The Mail on Sunday)
Allegro di molto [5'53]
British countertenor Iestyn Davies is one of the fastest rising stars on the concert and opera circuit. Following his highly acclaimed recording of Porpora cantatas, he returns for a second solo album with Hyperion, a selection of arias written for Gaetano Guadagni. Italian-born Guadagni was the first ‘modern’ castrato, famed all over Europe for the lyric purity of his voice and his powerful, naturalistic acting style. Not only did he enjoy a close artistic relationship with Handel, who nurtured Guadagni’s voice to fit the alto roles in his English oratorios, but he effectively created the role of Orpheus in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, an opera he thoroughly made his own. Here, Iestyn Davies is joined again by the renowned period-instrument band Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen.
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Gaetano Guadagni (1728–1792) will always be celebrated for the part he played in freeing opera from the rigid structures of the Baroque stage and enriching it with the emotional freedom of the age of sensibility. It was a happy accident that his career flourished in the 1760s and 1770s, the decades in which fundamental changes in taste, technique and dramatic aims took place. He was intelligent enough to understand the new dramatic theories advanced by writers like Algarotti, Diderot and Calzabigi; he was a great reader, and his library of nearly 400 volumes would have contained many theoretical studies besides the scores and librettos essential to his trade. But he was also an opportunist: the new theories suited him down to the ground. His small, refined voice suited the intimate, nuanced declamation favoured by the sensibility movement, and his enthusiasm for immersing himself in a character was satisfied by the new naturalistic approach to acting which encouraged a singer to identify with his role.
His career differed in several respects from the normal run of castratos. It was unusual for a castrato to come from a family of professional musicians, but Guadagni had three sisters and a brother who were opera singers. The operation that defined his career was all too often undertaken as an act of desperation by an impoverished family who hoped to make money out of a son’s career. For Guadagni it seems likely that it was an informed choice by parents who knew the profession from the inside, and to whom it might have seemed of little more significance than choosing an instrument for a child. Guadagni attended no conservatory and was apprenticed to no singing teacher. So far as we can tell, he received his instruction at home from his father, a member of the choir at Lodi cathedral, and continued his apprenticeship as a member of the world-famous choir of St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua.
It was pure chance that brought Guadagni to London in 1748. He arrived in the company of a comic-opera troupe which quickly went bankrupt and did little to advance his prospects beyond a crash course in stage deportment. (A colleague remarked of his first performances on the London stage that he had ‘two left feet’.) But through socializing with other Italian musicians in the city he was introduced to Burney, who in turn introduced him to Handel, and immediately his career took off.
Guadagni spent more of his time working with Handel than with any other composer, and his influence lasted Guadagni a lifetime. Handel moulded Guadagni’s voice to the demands of the roles he wrote or adapted for him in the oratorios, occasionally pushing him to the limits of his technique, notably in ‘The raptur’d soul’ from Theodora and ‘Destructive war’ from Belshazzar, but more often nurturing his talent for legato singing, as in ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from Saul and ‘Yet, can I hear that dulcet lay’ from The Choice of Hercules. Though widely criticized for his imperfect pronunciation, Guadagni extended his English-language roles, singing the dazzling ‘Vengeance, O come inspire me!’ in Arne’s Alfred, and ‘Say, lovely Dream!’ in John Christopher Smith’s The Fairies. The latter work, derived from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brought him into contact with the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick who, according to Burney, ‘took much pleasure in forming him as an actor’. Whatever the truth of this assertion—and in his first London seasons Guadagni had shared the stage with the equally legendary Italians Laschi and Pertici—Guadagni’s acting was thereafter acknowledged as having ‘no equal on any stage in Europe’.
The seven years he spent in England included excursions to Dublin and Paris. The latter was a particuarly notable enterprise for a castrato. France was the only European country not to welcome castrato soloists in the public theatres. But the voice-type had its admirers, particularly at court: Louis XIV introduced castratos into the Chapelle Royale, where they retained a presence up to the Revolution. In 1753 the Dauphine Maria Josepha invited Guadagni to take part in a performance of Hasse’s Didone abbandonata at Versailles, where Guadagni’s performance—particularly in the recitative–aria numbers ‘Ah che dissi! … Se resto sul lido’ and ‘Odi colà la frigia tromba? … A trionfar mi chiama’—attracted admiring notices; the following year he returned to Paris to sing in the prestigious Concert Spirituel. It was probably while in Paris that he negotiated his next move, to sing at the new opera house in Lisbon. By an unlucky stroke, the year was 1755. The great earthquake destroyed the opera house and dispersed the company. It was an opportunity for Guadagni to take a break, study, and restructure his career.
Guadagni’s path to Vienna in 1762 was less random than his visit to London fourteen years earlier. After Lisbon, he developed his reputation on the Continent, and was sought out for leading roles by a variety of composers, from the conventional (J C Bach, Piccinni) to the avant-garde (Traetta, Jommelli). Talent-spotted by the director of theatres in Vienna, he was summoned to join a dynamic group of artists including the poet Calzabigi and the composer Gluck, whose joint aim was to break with the conventions of traditional Italian opera by infusing it with elements from the French. The result was Orfeo ed Euridice. Calzabigi emphasized that the opera was designed around Guadagni’s voice: ‘The role fitted him like a glove’, he said, and ‘in any other hands it would have been a disaster.’ The lyrical simplicity of ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ and the spell-binding orchestral tone-poem of ‘Che puro ciel!’ encapsulate the sheer novelty of the music. Gluck wrote two more roles for Guadagni, one of them the title role in Telemaco, represented here by the plaintive ‘Ah! non turbi il mio riposo’. But something went disastrously wrong with their relationship. Telemaco was a failure, taken off after two performances, and Calzabigi roundly blamed the failure on Guadagni, who, he asserted without further explanation, was ‘a rogue’. Gluck and Guadagni never worked together again.
Nevertheless, the role of Orpheus proved to be a catalyst for Guadagni, who came to identify with the part. In an age when it was unusual for a singer to repeat a role from one season to another, over the next two decades Guadagni not only sang it in London, Munich, and Padua, but re-created the character of Orpheus in settings of the same libretto by other composers, so that by the last decade of his career he sang very little else. His admiration for the role did not prevent him from recomposing two of the numbers in Gluck’s opera. A third aria, and probably his best composition, was written for a performance of Ezio, either in Guglielmi’s setting premiered in London in 1770 or in Bertoni’s setting revived in Verona in 1772: ‘Pensa a serbarmi, o cara’ gives us an insight into the kind of music Guadagni himself liked to sing, and a chance to display his much-praised delicate phrasing and eloquent declamation.
Guadagni spent the last two decades of his life in Padua. The choir of St Anthony’s that had expelled him unceremoniously (for unauthorized absences) in 1748 welcomed him back twenty years later, and acknowledged his celebrity with a salary considerably higher than that of Tartini, who led the orchestra, and Vallotti, who directed it. Even so, while retaining his position in Padua, he travelled extensively in Europe as an international star. Between operatic engagements he returned to Padua, where he earned a reputation as a noted benefactor of the city, spending huge sums of money supporting civic projects, including the building of the magnificent elliptical park at the heart of Padua, the Prato della Valle. As part of his religious duties he sang in the basilica before visiting dignitaries, both prince and pope, and entertained more informally in his house, where two rooms were given over to a marionette theatre. In summer, he organized choral and orchestral festivals in the Prato, and in winter, musical sledge rides through the city streets.
Guadagni’s connection with the role of Orpheus alone would be enough to distinguish him as the first modern castrato—never has the phrase ‘created the role’ been more appropriate. He was quick to understand the dramatic principles that Gluck and Calzabigi were trying to establish, and his natural abilities equipped him to meet their requirements. One of Gluck’s most talked-about reforms was his struggle to control the amount of improvised ornamentation most singers brought to their parts. Since Guadagni had so little taste for virtuosic display that he was occasionally characterized as ‘lazy’ for avoiding it, conforming to Gluck’s demands came easily to him. An appreciation of his voice describing him as a ‘passionate singer, who faithfully represents nature’ is almost a summary of Gluck and Calzabigi’s artistic credo and suggests how far Guadagni must have seemed to them an ideal interpreter of their work. His acting talent was noted by many. It is difficult fairly to apportion credit for his instruction between the Italian comic actors Laschi and Pertici and the English Garrick, but certainly during his period in England he acquired a considerable reputation in this field, and was compared favourably with Farinelli, the leading castrato of an earlier generation, whose stage movement was once likened to that of a lumbering cow.
Guadagni’s personality was full of contradictions. He was popular with colleagues but a trial to managements. There are numerous instances of his working behind the scenes to advance the careers of colleagues, but he could also encourage them to rebel against inadequate salaries or status. His conspicuous generosity constantly landed him in debt. He was touchy, easily provoked, and became angry if he felt a composer had not taken enough pains to cater for the special qualities of his voice: this is almost certainly the reason for his eventual break with Gluck. His redeeming feature is that many of his quarrels were driven by his artistic principles, and these were Gluck’s principles of respect for the text, and sustaining the integrity of a performance. Things came to a head in London in the 1770s when he refused to interrupt performances of Orfeo to give encores or to acknowledge applause. It would be decades, perhaps more than a century, before audiences understood the intensity of the dramatic experience he was aiming to convey. Guadagni was surely ahead of his time: not just the first modern castrato, but arguably the first modern opera singer.
If Guadagni’s musical personality had a counterpart in instrumental music it was the passionate and thrilling work of C P E Bach, represented here—by way of an orchestral interlude—by his Sinfonie in D major, written aound the time Guadagni was composing ‘Pensa a serbarmi’. The arresting outer movements suggest the ‘wild and careless’ epithets attributed to Guadagni in his youthful London period, while the exquisite sonorities of the slow movement recall a description of the mature castrato’s voice as ‘delicate, polished and refined’. So far as we know the two musicians never met. But both were working towards the same end: a new approach to expression that distanced music from the elegantly balanced galant style and rendered Nature in its unpredictable asymmetries.
Patricia Howard © 2012