Pace e guerra: Arias for Bernacchi

Terry Wey countertenor, Bach Consort Wien, Rubén Dubrovsky (with Vivica Genaux mezzo-soprano &  Valer Sabadus countertenor)
74:40
deutsche harmonia mundi 889854105020
Music by Gasparini, Handel, Hasse, Pollarolo, Sarro, Torri & Vinci

The concept of selections centred on great singers of the past has become popular in recent years. It is an excellent idea, not only as it provides a focus that might otherwise be missing, but – and more importantly – it can provide unique insight into the kind of voice possessed by a singer before we had the aid of recordings to determine such things. This is especially valuable in the case of a singer like the alto castrato Antonio Maria Bernacchi, whose fame rests principally, if perhaps unfairly, on a magnificent coloratura technique employed at the expence of expression.

Bernacchi was born in Bologna in 1685. After making his first operatic appearance in Genoa in 1703, he sang in 1709 in Vienna and Venice, the latter the city in which he would appear most frequently. But his fame rapidly spread throughout Italy and he was also engaged by Handel (at huge cost) in London, where he created the roles of Lotario  in the eponymous opera (1729) and Arsace in Partenope  a few months later. Eartlier, in 1720, he had been engaged by the Elector of Bavaria in Munich, service in which Bernacchi nominally remained until 1735. Particularly in his latter years he was known for his excessive obesity, a famous caricature depicting him having his stomach held up on stage by an extra. Bernacchi died in 1756, two decades after he had retired with a reputation on a par with the likes of Senesino and Farinelli, the latter of whom for a short while studied with Bernacchi.

The opening aria on the CD, ‘Pace e guerra’ from Pietro Torri’s Lucio Vero  (Munich, 1720) will do little to dispel Bernacchi’s repute as an exponent of virtuoso coloratura, although the opening word announces Swiss countertenor Terry Wey’s credentials with a finely graded messa di voce. Ironically the aria, like a number of the faster pieces, is taken at a rapid tempo, complete with fashionably clipped orchestral playing, that only serves to underline Bernacchi’s reputation and the rather vapid nature of the aria. On the plus side it shows Wey’s articulation of rapid passagework to be excellent, if rather less praiseworthy in communicating the meaning of the text. Here, as elsewhere, Wey’s ornamentation of da capo repeats is largely sensible, mostly avoiding the wilder ascents and leaps that so many singers appear to be unable to resist. Rather more interesting than ‘Pace e guerra’ and coloratura arias like ‘A dispetta’ from Gasparini’s Il Bajazet  is the number of slower, more expressive numbers that suggest Bernacchi’s talents were far wider than has been suggested. Among them are arias from the two London operas of Handel’s in which he appeared. Arsace’s ‘Ch’io parta’ from Partenop e is sung by Wey with great expressive sensitivity, while the exquisitely lovely ‘Non disperi peregrino’ from Lotario  is a ‘simile’ aria breathing calm spiritual advice, conveyed with eloquently sustained tone and line, though again I’m not entirely convinced Wey has captured the inner essence of the text. This repertoire remains full of undiscovered treasure, of which there are several examples included here, foremost an utterly wonderful duet from Hasse’s Demetrio, in which Wey is joined, as he is in several extracts, by mezzo Vivica Genaux. This is one of those pieces – originally written for Hasse’s wife Faustina Bordoni and Bernacchi – where Hasse’s extravagant reputation as an Italianate lyricist par excellence  is fully vindicated, a gorgeously flowing andante that synthesises passionate intensity with truly profound emotion.

Overall this is a highly satisfying CD. The repertoire, much of it new to CD, is often revelatory, while Wey is a sensitive, responsive singer who shows himself capable of holding a sustained line with security, even if tonally his voice is perhaps not the most distinctive or characterful. With the exception of the caveat regarding brittle, clipped phrasing in quicker numbers, he is well supported by the Bach Consort Wien. Lovers of Baroque opera should snap up the disc without delay.

Brian Robins