Farinelli – The Running Man

A lengthy introduction

It took me long this time to pick a title. But yes, “The Running Man” it is. “The Running Man” is a novel by Stephen King, famously mise en scène with Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Who would have thought I would manage to connect Jaroussky and Schwarzenegger in one single blog note? Sometimes I even surprise myself.)

Quite literally, the novel is about a man running for his life. He is a convict, and only by participating in a live show on TV he can regain his freedom. The stakes are high to start with. Furthermore, as the plot evolves, the main character finds out a lot of things that weren’t part of the original deal.

The novel is about a driven man faced with a task that is superhuman by its set-up already. He was never supposed to win, as he finds out; it is all a fraud. However, he manages to turn the blade, and in the end, the audience proclaims its sentence over the corrupt show host instead.

Maybe the connection I’m seeing there to the castrati, or to Jaroussky’s last album is rather far-fetched. But then, the castrati also were people put to a superhuman task with ultimate stakes. Moreover, the theme of a man with considerable stamina and resilience and a lot to prove, and more, under constant, merciless observation of an audience that turns out to be his ally, reminded me of Jaroussky. In the end, it’s not his sublime skill, but his personality, his uniqueness, and also his bravery that wins his life … makes the CD worth hearing, I wanted to say.

Before we even start: Here is the link to the album on Amazon.co.uk; you can listen to audio samples there: [x]

A short intro, actually connected to the CD this time

Almost every second review I read of late of Jaroussky’s new album “Farinelli: Porpora Arias” is comparing his CD to the ones of two other countertenors that happen to be crafted around a similar sujet. I can’t see many parallels there, however, and I won’t draw this comparison that is doing no one justice in the end. I will compare though, concerning the choice of repertoire, and the design.

The album is very difficult for me to review. It’s complicated, because people in love aren’t sober critics, by default. However, my concept of love in any form is not to be blind and deaf to another’s mistakes, or flaws. We just suffer vicariously to a greater degree, and we tend to forgive more easily.

I will not write in depth about the arias and their context, because it has been done before; the CD comes with a great booklet, put together with much diligence and thought, shunning outward effect.

The trouble of picking baby names

Let’s start with the title. In Japan, and in Canada, the album is traded as “His Master’s Voice” via Amazon. However, on the cover it says “Farinelli Porpora Arias.” In Germany, the deluxe edition is listed as “Arias for Farinelli.” Plainly, this is confusing. I can imagine people are hesitant to order, or ask, as if they ask for “His Master’s Voice,” and it isn’t listed this way, they might get “The Voice” instead, and if they order “Farinelli” they get “Carestini” instead.

To both titles that seem to be optional: “Farinelli Porpora Arias” is an accurate title, but it lacks the conciseness and impact that a “Bach/Brahms” cover has, for instance (or “Kaufmann, Verdi”), and instead it seems a little beaurocratic. It has the charm of some German compound nouns, like “Rechnungsstelle.”

The first association to “His Master’s Voice” is the image of cute dogs pricking up their ears, so that’s something positive. In seriousness: I like the title for its double meaning. However, I think most people will never catch that it actually is ambivalent in the first place. What they are sure to get is the obvious; but it’s of course not the intended meaning. Jaroussky is surely many things but no one who blindly follows orders like a good dog, from anyone. (He might, if they came from Händel, maybe, but surely not Porpora or Farinelli.) But of course, “His Master’s Voice” can also mean “The voice his master created.” or “The voice he lent to his master.” If it has this meaning, I absolutely love it. (I will just think it was meant that way, and be happy.)

In general, the label doesn’t seem to invest much time to sorting things out with Amazon. It is interesting in how many ways titles can be mis-spelt. [x]

This gives a bad start, and is a drawback when it comes to sales, because it is actually a good thing if things are labelled for what they are, are searchable … To put it in a nutshell: It’s simply professional to take some care. I hope this is going to improve in the future.

The cover

A great plus: It conveys an idea; that’s much more than the ones of the proclaimed competition achieve. (“Oh, blue eyes!” there, vs., quoting Oscar Wilde, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”)

The message is quite clear; Jaroussky is the modern guy – not only modern, but photographed just as if he was the guy next-door – engaged in a dialogue with a mentor, most likely, at any rate, a figure from the past. Pose and setting suggest they are equals. The S-shaped chaise longue also puts a barrier between them. Whether the other figure is supposed to depict Porpora, or Farinelli, is unclear. If it’s Farinelli, it shows his distance. Jaroussky is not Farinelli. He’s just himself. He isn’t posing. We got that. If the other person is supposed to depict Porpora, it shows the same. Jaroussky is considering the advice that the other gives him, and forms his own opinion. There’s no steamy bromance going on there. (Just a side-note, or rather, a counter-example: Cecilia Baroli’s Gluck album, e. g., sounds as if she and Gluck had a very happy, steamy, yet light-hearted love affair.)

I like the idea, even if it could be better executed, in my humble opinion. With better, I mean photographing a person in a way that it does them justice. Funnily, the pictures from the back cover, and the inside of the booklet are much more atmospheric.

These additional pictures raise the thought that this is how the photographer maybe rather planned the design to be like. Well, he didn’t get the upper hand in the final cover art. On the whole, the cover seems rather cool, and technical.

The track-listing

I’m a little music nerd at times, so the promise of seven world-premiere recordings is almost enough for me to buy any new album by any decent singer already. On top of it, some of the pieces that have been recorded before are veritable must-haves. (“Le limpid’onde!”) Then, there’s the unavoidable “Alto Giove” which I still adore since I first heard it. I think it’s the one thing that reconciles me with the movie Farinelli which I saw back then, with high expectations, and left utterly disappointed – except for some featured arias, even if I didn’t like the rendition there at all.

“Alto Giove,” “Le limpid’onde”: They both have been snatched before, by Simone Kermes, and I even acknowledge she has some style of her own – I just don’t like it in most parts. The ensemble there sounds like pop, as if every track was recorded separately, and the colour she gives some vowels of hers is enough all by itself to scare me off. (“Tuo ceehhnno sovra …”) Well, it’s all a matter of taste.

PJ’s competiton chooses a less intellectual go concerning the choice of repertoire; as a result, they didn’t have the additional limit to only choose arias of one composer, and the repertoire he wrote for just one singer. From a musicologists’ point of view, Jaroussky’s approach is the more serious and sincere one. The album isn’t just there to please. It is there with a mission; to shed a light on the life of a too-little-known composer, and his special and very close relationship to his pupil.

Mix and recording

I might be a little harsh there, but on a scale from perfection (“Opium”) to weird (“La Dolce Fiamma”) this album is right in the middle. The voice — as well as the ensemble — is recorded in a way that is utterly uncharming and unflattering, and in contrast to “La Dolce Fiamma,” where the voice tends to be too present, this time it is just a little bit too much in the background. The style here matches the one of the cover, and the title, I reckon – more an analytic approach than an emotional one. Yet, painting a accurate portrait is not the same as an doing an x-ray.

It wouldn’t annoy me so much if this way of recording wouldn’t fuel self-appointed prophets in their proclamation that Jaroussky’s voice sounded a little worn out. (They always try and corroborate this by the fact that the album was recorded before his break, so they suggest that he had planned it for the purpose to give his voice a break, following an urgent need — when in fact, as I have heard — and assume — he had been planning it for years, or at least, a longer period of time already. Well, the recording technique is the equivalent of a paparazzi picture, somehow. It would be hilarious to write a deep, insightful observation, concluding that the woman of your dreams doesn’t look at all like she does on the pictures you have previously seen of her. She has wrinkles, she looks a little stressed-out, and she has a pimple on her chin — but it never crosses your mind to blame this on the different way the pictures were taken and processed. It’s similar with recordings.

A sound I would have favoured can be found on La Bartoli’s album, “Sacrificium.”

I might get accustomed to the sound of the “Farinelli” album yet. So far, for me, it has the appeal of a demo recording, made at 1:30 a. m., in a rehearsal room. It conveys authenticity, but is lacking the plus that a great audio engineer and their team could yet be adding to a recording. Most of you won’t be familiar with recording techniques, microphone types, and all the hardware involved, so I won’t bore you. Yet, equipment isn’t everything by far. It’s just like with cameras. “Oh, your camera does great pictures!””And your stove is a great cook …” Above a certain technical level, it’s all a matter of taste, and skill.

In fact, soundwise, I like any recording of Jaroussky with Spinosi better, e. g., “La Verità in cimento.” But as I said before, it’s all a matter of taste.

The conductor and the ensemble

The most accurate description I ever heard so far was from my boyfriend: “It’s like watching FC Barcelona play. Everyone is a star, and imagine what they would achieve if they would actually play as a team for a change.” The comparison falls short, as obviously Messi, Valdéz, etc., get paid a lot more than Jaroussky, Andrea Marcon and The Venice Baroque Orchestra. Yet, at times I got the feeling that they were playing along, and next to them, Jaroussky was singing something as well. I’m confident that their playing as a team will improve in the play-offs … the more concerts they are giving together yet, I meant to say.

The singer

I file him last, because it seems to me – no matter how big his influence was in the compilation and recording of this album – that this time he comes short. I heard that Marcon granted him much freedom. This may be the case, but we mostly grow and achieve the super-human the moment we encounter boundaries. The release of the record coincides with Jaroussky’s announcement that he picked up sports – while he stated some time ago he wasn’t much of a sports-person – and on the whole, he seems to want to shed everything soft or boyish. Well, that’s fine. But you can hear it too, and what I hear is a voice that is trying to go somewhere, that tries new things. It sounds altogether different from what he did before.

It’s athletic, it’s a tour de force of skill and coloratura, a Running Man of Baroque music. Some may be able to sing higher, some lower, but no one even gets close to his technique. To me, it seems that this is what he wants to show. Yet, what I love about him is primarily something else, so in parts, this album leaves me hungry. Hungry for introvert pieces, like the “Quel passagier son io” by Vivaldi, like “Sovvente il sole,” or like “Cum dederit.” Did I pick all Vivaldi now? Oh yes. “Cara speme” from Giulio Cesare then. And maybe, in the future, “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” by Bach.

I’m just a mortal, while PJ is a god, so I usually don’t dare to draw any comparisons. Yet, one thing I noticed is that what we seem to like most about ourselves is rarely what others love about us. My daughter doesn’t care about how well I could sing Rossini; she likes my impersonation of the unbearable Candace from Phineas and Ferb the most.

Another parallel; I don’t much like everything that’s soft and girlish about my body. I would rather like to be one of the guys without my boobs getting in the way. I feel filed into a category by gender and age which I never felt to really belong in. Maybe PJ feels something similar. He isn’t just another gay countertenor. He is so much more than that. He is professional a cook enough to have his favourite garlic smasher. He can play the piano, and the violin, he draws, he composes. The fact that someone could reduce him to ‘gay’ most likely appalls him.

Obviously, my bf, and about everyone I closely encountered, didn’t mind my being girlish, or any part of my physique, ever. Quite the contrary: They liked exactly this.

A part of life is that we want to become what we adore, sometimes, I think. But enough of my rambles; in short: I would wish he would take up Alice Coote’s work-out regimen:

What sort of physical activity do you do to get your body in shape?

Lie down in bed and go to sleep whenever possible. Adopt the horizontal position. Get enough rest. As I get older, I’m probably going to have to gym myself to keep up the physical strain of flying around the world and leaping about, but I need the looseness of my body. The softness of my body is probably one of the reasons why I’m a better singer than I might be. Keeping fit and healthy, eating well, and getting enough rest are the most important things. Hydration! Lots and lots of water.

Source: [x]

But hey, if he stops singing right now, and starts training, to participate in an iron-man contest in two years’ time — I’ll cheer for him. He still has so much time to do all sorts of things. I’m curious to see and hear what he will achieve.

The duets

Let me pick my least-loved one: “La gioia io sento” – I don’t much like the piece, am I bad for saying this? The B-part is a highlight, admittedly. Otherwise it conveys the emotional depth of “Giovani lieti fiori spargete” from Le Nozze. However, the piece is perfect to bring out the basic problem with duets by PJ and Bartoli. Apparently, she can’t endure so well a mere bar where nothing special is happening. So she adds to it. Little sighs, and graces, all flawlessly executed, and in style, but quite unmatching the up-front, and self-sufficient way of Jaroussky’s singing and phrasing. 

I heard that she is a charming person, a true professional, and a joy to work with. I instantly believe this, and she is one of my ever favourite singers on top of it. However, wherever she appears, subconsciously maybe, she tries to steal the show. She won’t have herself seconded, and less by a man. However, duets are about giving and taking, and equality. The way the vocal lines add to each other, embrace, flatter, highlight and contradict each other, how differences merge into something new, and complete, has something very sensual; or it is there to highlight a clashing contrast. A dialogue is mostly endlessly more interesting than any monologue.

This isn’t only the case with plain love duets. Let’s take this one as a perfect example: “Dio, che nell’alma infondere.” Flandria. Hell, yes. This duet shows Posa and Carlo as potential equals. Also it shows how well they match, of course, in every way. The duet isn’t just there to sound pretty. It has a meaning. Boaz Daniel and Kaufmann match well by nature, no one is trying to sing down the other. I’m not saying Bartoli tries the latter with Jaroussky; she means well. Still, it is simply too much of everything at times, in my humble opinion.

Summary: 

In short: Buy and cherish every recording of PJ’s. Support one of the true artists amidst a sea of mediocrity. It’s simply a must for every Baroque fan, not only considering the number of pieces that have never been recorded before. The booklet is a well-compiled, concise source on the ever-romanticized topic of castratos, and Farinelli in particular.

The ultimate highlight of the album, for me, is the “Alto Giove” – finally, with the B-part, and thus, the da Capo this time. This has been long overdue. Not even the recording technique can distract from the fact that it is a gem. Sublimely sung – it is very hard to imagine anything that could be better.

Do buy! On an absolute scale, I’m giving 5 out of 5 stars. On a Jaroussky scale, I’m giving 987 of 1000.

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