Astounding is the first word that comes to mind when encountering Philippe Jaroussky in live performance or on record. Here's a taste: "Alto Giove" from Nicola Porpora's opera Polifemo (1735) (unfortunately shorn of its instrumental introduction):
His amazingly pure and agile voice is usually described as a countertenor (that is, as a falsetto), but it sounds to me like a natural soprano. Whatever its true classification, it is astonishing.
Jaroussky, though, doesn't just rely on his lovely sound for effect: he is an extremely musical singer who has the rare ability to improvise embellishments that enhance the music he's performing. You can read about our first electrifying encounter with him in an earlier post on this year's Boston Early Music Festival's centerpiece opera, Steffani's Niobe.
This fall Jaroussky toured North America with Apollo's Fire, the Cleveland-based period instrument ensemble led by Jeannette Sorrell, in a program of pieces both bravura and affetuoso by Handel and Vivaldi. They appeared in Berkeley as part of the Cal Performances Early Music concert series on October 30, 2011, and we were fortunate enough to have fifth-row seats in the intimate Hertz Hall.
For the program "Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks," Jaroussky chose some Handel rarities from the later period of his operatic career; and as far as Vivaldi goes, practically all of his vocal music qualifies as rarities. You can see a summary of the program at the Cal Performances website; the unfamiliarity of much of the music only added to our sense of discovery. And while there were plenty of opportunities for Jaroussky to exhibit flights of almost-inhuman virtuosity, there were also many tender and lyrical moments (as in the Porpora aria excerpted above).
Jaroussky evidently favors collaborations with conductors and ensembles that exhibit a performance flair that matches his own: he has worked with Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Emmanuelle Haïm, Gabriel Garrido, and Fabio Biondi, all conductors who favor what might be called an interventionist, rather than evidence-based, period performance practice. Sorrell definitely favors a highly theatrical musical approach. For example, she would frequently insert unwritten rests: stopping the ensemble abruptly on the next-to-last note of a piece, pausing for several beats, and then sounding the final chord. This is probably an anachronistic practice deriving from the later 18th or even 19th century. But if Apollo's Fire lacked something in historical accuracy or elegance, it more than made up for it in the spirited way that it attacked the demands of Handel's and Vivaldi's very difficult instrumental writing.
In spite of his self-effacing willingness to share the spotlight, Jaroussky was clearly the star of the show. The audience response to his performances was so rapturous I feared for the structural integrity of the concert hall. Jaroussky responded by performing three encores written for famous castrati, all of which brought the audience to their feet. The first was "Alto Giove," written by Porpora for Farinelli. The second was the showpiece "Venti, turbini" from Handel's Rinaldo (1711), written for Nicolini (Jaroussky charmingly announced it from the stage by saying that the aria "has many notes"). And the third encore was a profoundly moving "Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Serse (1738), written for Caffarelli (Jaroussky's comment: "This aria doesn't have many notes—just the right ones"). It sent us home floating on air: