Christian Bach’s Castrato Arias

by David Yearsley, August 4, 2010

Bach’s sons remained in the homeland — until the last, Johann Christian. Born in 1735, he was called, though even from beyond the grave, father Bach might have regretted that second name after his youngest had moved to Italy in 1755 and converted to Catholicism, that sect feared and hated by Orthodox Lutherans with an intensity that surely surpassed the antipathy of Shiite for Sunni, and vice-versa. Like so many Protestant musi­cians who worked in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries, the parallel sensual appeal of Catholicism and opera proved difficult to resist: the mighty fortress of Lutheran austerity could not long hold out against this siege of sumptuous decadence.

On J. S. Bach’s death in 1750, Christian went to live with one of his older half- brothers, Carl Philipp Emanuel, in Berlin. Like all Bach son’s, Christian had been trained by his father in his birthplace Leipzig as an organist; the teenager continued these studies in Berlin with the help of a two-manual clavichord with pedal board he inherited in the estate.

Berlin had one of Europe’s leading opera houses founded by the musician-warrior, Frederick the Great. It was here that Christian got his taste for Italian musical theatre. But the Berlin opera was by then already a con­servative institution, at least a decade behind the latest musical fashions being stamped out in Italy. This most up-to-date style of so-called “gallant” music sought above all to appear “natural”: it was meant to be flowing, simple, clear, orderly, appealing to the amateur and the connoisseur. In contrast to the endless repetitions of words and phrases favored by J. S. Bach in his cantatas — themselves miniature, sacred operas — these Italian texts were to be treated more as refined conversation and elegant oratory, rather than bombastic sermon. The gal­lant was music that put the “lite” in Enlightenment. There was joy, entertainment and just enough paradoxi­cal profundity to be found in its radiant superficiality. Far easier to mimic than either the complex and colossal fugues of his father and the restive intensity of his guardian half-brother’s music, the gallant style was quickly mastered by the youngest Bach son after his arrival in Italy.

After winning an important position as second organ­ist at the Milan Cathedral, he continued to study compli­cated contrapuntal music with the famed pedagogue Padre Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. In 1760 Bach received his first opera commission from the Royal Theatre in Turin. A showcase aria from that musical drama is heard towards the end of the young French counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky’s recently released CD, La dolce fiamma: Forgotten Castrato Arias by J. C. Bach. In a sort of entrance rite into the fraternity of eminent European opera composers, the twenty-five-year-old Bach set Artaserse, a libretto by the leading creator of operatic texts of the period, the Imperial poet, Pietro Metatasio. If you think Hollywood feeds insatia­bly at the trough of the remake, that level gluttony is nothing compared to the habits of 18th-century opera. At least forty different composers and production teams tried their hands at this script, first written and staged three decades before Bach got around to it.

From Bach’s break-out opera, Jaroussky’s makes the obvious and excellent choice to sing “Vo solcando un mar crudele.” The character, Arbace, friend of Artaserse, has had a tough go of it, as is recapped in the preceding recitative, also recorded here:

No, fate can have no moreCalamities for me. All in one day,All oh God! have I experienced.I lost my friend, my sister reviles me,My father accuses me, my darling weeps,And I must stay silentAnd cannot speak.

Deploying a favorite cliché of the period, Bach intro­duces this soliloquy with brooding octaves, which, unex­pectedly give way to sweet, flowing strains, as if to sig­nal the reverie of lost love. Bach repeatedly introduces these moments of poignant solace, before throwing the singer’s thoughts — and voice — back into the dire straits of the dramatic present.

Vo solcando, the aria that follows this recitative, is climactic — and climatic: the singer is tossed on angry waves and headed for emotional shipwreck:

I plough through a cruel seaWithout sails, without rud­der:The water heaves, the sky darkens,The wind is rising and my skill is poor.

In such a storm one might expect a tempestuous minor theme and heaving harmonies. But Bach’s is music of the light even under stormy skies. Minor melo­dies are rare birds across the second half of the 18th-century, and only one of the arias on this disc is in this darker mode. Instead, a sunny theme seems buoyed by the waves, lapping rather than leaping; the tumult is evoked instead by a long crescendo leading up to the soprano’s entrance. The excellent orchestra behind Jaroussky is called Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and it pro­vides the necessary weather for buffeting this ship for­ward. His finger to the wind, director Jérémie Rhorer finds the gusts and eddies that bring this style to life. Built of simple figures, predictable harmonies, and regular phrases, this is music that lives or dies in per­formance, and here it soars.

Jaroussky is a great singer and even greater musician. His intonation and his technical facility in tossing off demanding passages, trills, and other feats of 18th-cen­tury song are remarkable. Trained as a violinist, he has made a career as a counter-tenor mostly in 17th music over the last decade, but also in Handel’s operas. I was lucky enough to hear him in the part of Telemaco in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ullise in 2005. In that per­formance Jaroussky found anger, fear, and hope in the character through his absolute control of timbre, dynamic shading, and sense of timing that draws one into each phrase as if into the inner feelings. The singing was per­fect but still human.

A fine actor on stage, Jaroussky is equally compel­ling in the concert hall, as in his performance of Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While,” which captivates with each turn of figure, each swell of the voice, each leap, and each change of register, an expressive tour-de-force that triumphs even against the plodding accompaniment of his pedestrian harpsichordist. But the 17th-century is another century, and to be a convincing singer in one era does not mean that success is ensured in another. One might at first think that the purity of Jaroussky’s voice and his unmatched control would be perfect for the music of the Enlightenment and its attachment to clarity and ease. In fact, this weightless music needs a weightier heroism, even when racing up and down throughthe technical flourishes of the gallant virtuoso’s musical lexicon. I don’t think it is merely a modern, realist taste for the more overt display of anguish that makes Jaroussky’ impressive performance sometimes seem more like a demonstration of musical skill than an effort to bring these characters to life. Even though he manages the bravura with such facility, Jaroussky is at his best in the intimate, expressive arias like the cavatina from Artaserse, Perché tarda é mal la morte.

Vo scaldano was first sung by Gaetano Guadagni one of the biggest stars of the period: a Brad Pitt blockbuster type with glorious soprano voice, but — given the ana­tomical alteration that ensured these gifts — no kids. He commanded a bravura technique, but also, as the great musical observer Charles Burney wrote, had an “artful manner of diminishing his voice like the dying notes of an Aeolian harp. ” Jaroussky has these gifts, too: speed, range, and ornament. He is also master of the graceful and pathos-filled diminuendo, as in the disc’s closing aria from Ch’io parta? from Temistocle. an opera written in 1772 for the Mannheim court, then the most famous musical establishment in Europe. The end of the long opening phrase seems to be carried off by the breeze, before yet more floodgates of rage are thrown open.

Gaudagni was one of the great theatrical stars of the mid-18th-century, thought difficult to work with by many directors. Handel felt him worthy of three new arias for the 1750 version of Messiah. Guadagni later premiered the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s famous version; this would vault Gaudagni to the front ranks of Europe’s operatic stars. J. C. Bach later expanded Gluck’s short opera, a scant 90 minutes long, with much additional music to make for a full theatrical evening for his Lon­don audience. When Gaudagni returned to the role in Bach’s expanded version in Naples in 1774, Bach wrote him a crowd-pleasing aria, “La legge accetto,” which closes Act I of the opera when Orfeo has accepted Zeus’s conditions for the retrieval of his beloved Eurydice. This piece is heard here, too, and provides another demon­stration of orchestral finesse behind singing both poised and powerful. It is a highlight of the disc.

Like many a modern-day stars, Gaudagni was also infamous for his off-stage antics, as in this vignette, reported by Horacle Walpole in a letter of 1749:

“Francis Delaval, a wild young fellow, kept an Italian woman, called the Tedeschi [the soptrano Caterina Tedeschi]. He had noticed one day that she was actually then in bed with Gaudagni, a handsome young eunuch, who sings in the burlettas. The injured cavalier takes one of his chairmen and a horsewhip, surprises the lovers, drags them out of bed, and makes the chairman hold Mars, while he flogged Venus most unmercifully. After that execution, he takes Gaudagni, who fell on his knees and cried and screamed for mercy — ‘No, Sir,’ Delaval said, ‘I have another sort of punishment for you,’ and immediately turned up that part, which in England is accustomed to be flogged too, but in its own country has a different entertainment — which he accordingly gave it. ”

The sack is not the stage or the studio (at least not usu­ally), and this vivid scene says nothing about Gaudagni’s singing, but the faintest suggestion of the risky intemperance conveyed by this episode is what is somehow missing from the recording.

Jaroussky’s often fiery 2007 portrait of another famed castrato, Carestini demonstrated more convinc­ingly the emotional and musical range of that tempestu­ous star and the richness of the morsels to be tasted from the gallant banqueting table catered by such composers as Gluck, Mozart, and Hasse. I do not want to say that it is Bach’s music that has failed to inspire Jaroussky, but that may be part of the problem. These arias are gallant vessels to be filled with more volatile spirits than Jaroussky is willing to pour into them. His greater strengths lie elsewhere.

Of all the Bachs, Christian was the only truly interna­tional star in his lifetime. He rode his Italian success to London in 1763, where he came to dominate the vibrant opera scene. Thus he became known as the “London Bach,” a genial man with a talent for accessible, market­able music for the stage for the home. The strength of character and long-reach vision that sent him venturing across Europe without the security of a solid Lutheran job back in the Bach heartland is captured in Thomas Gainsborough fine portrait of him from 1776.

Bach continued to receive commissions come from across Europe, and he became the prime force in the public concert life of the British capital. Ultimately, he might have wished for that lost Lutheran security, as his ventures led him to financial troubles and early death in 1782.

“What a loss to the musical world,” wrote the young Mozart, who had met and warmly supported by Christian during the young Mozart’s visit to London in 1764. The modern musical world is rediscovering his music again through efforts like those of Jaroussky, a wonderful singer, even when venturing, like Bach, out of his native element. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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