Arias for Luigi Marchesi

The great castrato of the Napoleonic aria
Ann Hallenberg, Stile Galante, Stefano Aresi
71:45
Glossa GCD 923505
Music by Bianchi, Cherubini, Cimarosa, Mayr, Myslive&chacek;ek, Pugnani, Sarti & Zingarelli

Another winner from the excellent Ann Hallenberg. Luigi Marchesi (1754-1829) was described by contemporaries as “the infinity and personification of the castratos”, and “the very best of his kind”. (He also achieved fame by refusing to sing before Napoleon, following the latter’s victorious entry into Milan in 1796.) Many descriptions of his superb singing survive, along with a number of written-out examples of his astonishing improvised ornamentation; these are the inspiration for this remarkable disc, which sets out to recreate his long-lost art.

Ann Hallenberg already has a number of extremely interesting and thoughtfully planned recordings to her name, and this is no exception. She gives us a breathtaking display of vocal fireworks – long perfectly-even semiquaver runs, spot-on arpeggios, and precisely tuned huge leaps – but with the added scholarly spice of them being either written-out or inspired by Marchesi himself. There is even an example of the once-famed Marchesi “rocket”, an exhilarating upward run in semitones over two octaves! Remarkably, despite all the pyrotechnics, the overall impression is of intense dramatic urgency and emotional aptness, as indeed Marchesi’s contemporary audiences agreed.

There are many highlights. Try the dazzling Cimarosa ‘Superbo di me stesso’ (track 9) for a good overall example, or the lovely slow Cherubini ‘Quanto e fiero il mio tormento’ (track 6) with its many cadenzas and electrifying allegro conclusion. The extended scena from Zingarelli’s ‘Pirro’ (track 11) is especially fine, with the added bonus of Francesca Cassinari’s lovely soprano.

Stile Galante supply superbly energetic orchestral support, with some particularly lovely string and woodwind solos (e. g., the glorious bassoon obbligato at the opening of Pugnani’s ‘Misero pargoletto’, track 7). Stefano Aresi, as well as sparkling overall direction, supplies exemplary and scholarly sleeve notes.
Much of the music is, as far as I am aware, new to disc, giving us a fascinating snapshot of operatic music and performance practice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Alastair Harper