Blog Archives

The virtual world of Franco Fagioli (Barbican, 4 June 2018)

Life is funny in many unexpected ways. When I first saw the advert for this show I thought “pfft, Barbican! Just how big does FF think he is?”1 So I didn’t buy a ticket, though, as you can see from the setlist, it contains two of my top favourite Baroque arias plus change.

Ffwd to last month, Baroque Bird asked me are you going to Franco’s show at the Barbican? Turns out she had an orphan ticket. Well… let’s say it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting and thanks to a very understanding colleague, some night shift Tetris was performed with speed.

Franco Fagioli countertenor
Gianpiero Zanocco | Venice Baroque Orchestra

Vivaldi Sinfonia in G major, RV 146
Cessate, o mai cessate, RV 684
Sinfonia in G minor, RV 156
‘Mentre dormi’ from Olimpiade
‘Nel profondo cieco mondo’ from Orlando Furioso
Handel ‘Dopo notte’ from Ariodante
‘Sento brillar ner (sic) sen’ from Il Pastor Fido
Vivaldi Sinfonia in C major from Il Giustino, RV 717
Handel ‘Scherza, infida’ from Ariodante
Geminiani Concerto gross (sic) in D minor ‘La follia’ (after A. Corelli Op 5, No 12)
Handel ‘Se potessero i sospir miei’ from Imeneo


‘Crude furie’ from Serse
‘Ombra mai fu’ from Serse

One of the things I discovered since intently listening to Baroque opera is that there are Handel singers and Vivaldi singers. The top Baroque specialists sound good in both but even so you can tell which one is more up their alley. In Fagioli’s case it’s obviously the great Handel, to quote the man himself. The best moments of the night were hands down Dopo notte (one of his signature arias) and Sento brillar nel sen. His Vivaldi wasn’t bad in any way but hearing his coloratura on the cheerful Handels sounded like so many fruit machine jackpots.

A funny-WTF thing happened after Sento brillar, when my seatmate turned to me in top conversational mode and asked do you fancy him? I kid you not, that’s what he asked me, though we’d barely exchanged a couple of words before – and he actually leaned in and expected a giggly yes (he got a are you shitting me? look and he ceased and desisted from trying to get chummy for the rest of the night).

Now, I’m sure constant readers of the blog have gleaned I may be fancying certain singers but let me reassure you Franco isn’t one of them, memorable CT-hug moment notwithstanding. This tells you quite a bit about the Barbican audience, who is looselier jointed than the Wiggy one. Case in point, when, after the interval, FF was doing his let them wait and cheer for me schtick, people actually started calling for him in a manner that lay curiously between cute and weird. I suggested to Leander the orchestra start Dopo notte without him, just to scare him into his senses a bit 😉

Whether I may internally groan at his diva moves (greatly toned down this time around2) and go for a very different look (I guess you’d say) in singers, let alone get constantly frustrated with the politics of casting castrato roles, in between Sento brillar and Dopo notte it dawned on me that I really enjoy him as a musician.

I’ve seen him enough times now that I don’t have to catch his performances if I don’t want to and I think I can certainly be objective in my subjectivity. I spent a good chunk of the night checking out his vibrato – the very one that does thadieu’s head in. I kinda see it’s there 😉 but it still doesn’t bother me. His diction was about as usual, perhaps a bit better (Leander thought a lot better) – or maybe it’s just because we were close (really nice spot, row K). I did understand quite a few words and it seemed they disintegrated only when he was putting the pedal to metal. His choice of ornaments wasn’t particularly exciting, mostly an occasion to remind us of his range. On the other hand, this was one of the areas he toned down on, so perhaps he went to the other extreme.

I also think the Vivaldi contralto arias should stay with contraltos (though I did enjoy him starting with Cessate, omai cessate (because it’s a great one to hear live), the whole came off a bit unfocused and the fun last bit sort of never quite took off the way I’m used to – but then that’s the peril with stated arias). His range was nicely showcased in Nel profondo, complete with his trademark very secure Bartoli baritonal touches, but somehow the effect on me wasn’t the same as when he hit the Handel runs. I think I know every note in Dopo notte and all of them went directly home.

He can certainly hit the whistle register (perhaps we just expect this from countertenors) but he doesn’t sound as unhinged as a contralto does when doing the same; for Orlando a bit of kookoo is desired. I don’t know if I’m right or not, but I think Vivaldi asks for a greater emphasis on contrast and colour than Handel (who, I also suppose, is more about structure and accuracy?). Please let me know what you think on this.

Even so, the things that I like (the joy and the gentleness that come through in his singing in the arias that require such) hit me perfectly. Leander’s friend observed that he didn’t seem to feed off the (very appreaciative) audience and rather stayed in his own world whilst singing. Interestingly, FF himself put it this way during the encores: thank you for enjoying the show with me. Now that might be international English for you, but quite. He enjoyed singing, we enjoyed listening.

This did get me thinking, though. We all perform to someone sometime, even though we’re not on an official stage. Those who know me irl may remember I enjoy telling what I think are “funny stories” – and that is the time when I can relate to feeding off the audience. You will know immediately if those around you are with you or not so more of the same may come out or be momentarily locked away accordingly.

But how does that work with a preexisting setlist? I suppose you offer to people things that either they know you for or are around the same lines. But it’s different, isn’t it, you telling the same story for the fifth time to the same audience3 or you hearing one of your favourites spin Dopo notte one more time, whether he’s in his own world or not.

Singing is a bit different than talking. It inhabits a certain magical space that simple talking never quite does, though it gets closest when it’s your favourite voice doing it. So with magic comes one’s own world. You may be pulled into it and you can stroll around and enjoy the sights, though you may not interact with them in a physical way – sort of like virtual reality. That’s how I always felt with FF – his offerings have a way of worming their way into my heart, yet he always remains remote. But, circling back to that funny-WTF interaction, that’s just fine with me 😉

To give you a different idea of ways in which his singing hits home with me, thanks to the fact I actually understood most of the words in his Scherza, infida, the moment he hit io tradito, a morte in braccio I was reminded how Jones’ Aix production brings into foreground the grossly unfair treatment of Ginevra. Prejudice from one’s own community that leads to tragic or near tragic results is one of the things that affect me most. I recently read about/listened to/watched the PBS documentary on the Todd Willingham case4 so I spent the bulk of the aria in an unsettled state. Say Baroque opera isn’t relevant to today’s world…

  1. It did not completely sell out. 
  2. Simple charcoal suit (and glasses), less to and fro-ing to backstage than usual, only one Latino stomp (after Crude furie) and pretty toned down vocal-showing off. 
  3. Though, to be fair, there are a couple of stories that I told certain audiences more than once on request! I guess it happens, if you hit the right audience with the right kind of story. 
  4. You can watch it too, if you want to be horrified at how your own community – from bottom to the top – can send you to your death based on prejudice, ignorance, cynicism and politcal interest whilst feeling self righteous about it, too. 

“where does franco fagioli lives?”

  • spelled like that, is a new search engine term via which someone found my blog.
  • the reason I’m writing about this is because I’m quite adamant about privacy in general. I can see why someone would be interested in the whereabouts of a beloved celeb (ie, in which country they live, especially if they are originally from a place not at the centre of the opera world). Sometimes they are open and they talk about it themselves. Fair enough. But I still feel it’s less our business. Leave them be.
  • you might think differently and that’s ok. There is a reason people chat with singers after the show. I’m ambivalent about that (as you may have noticed). Chatting might be very pleasant but you shouldn’t forget that the person on stage is somene else.
  • I don’t know where he lives. I also don’t know whom he’s dating (if he is dating anyone) – this related to another search engine term. Please don’t illuminate me about either. Or about any other opera singer I like (but you can tell me about who those I don’t like have broken up with! this is a schadenfreude happy zone, not a nunnery – after all).

Franco Fagioli gentler than ever (Wigmore Hall, 13 November 2015)

Arias for Caffarelli (and a bit of Carestini)

After last year’s much gushed about debut, Franco returned to Wigmore Hall, a place where he was once again warmly received.

You might wonder why I always call him by his first name (as if we were cousins) when I call everybody else predominantly by their initials (the more the better – JDD, JDF, ACA!). Just as other singers exude this or that feeling, Franco appears to me particularly warm and sweet. If he really is not, he’s doing a damn good job at fronting! He’s the kind of singer who is constantly looking at the members of the orchestra with appreciation and excitement, as if to say “we’re doing great stuff together!” He’s more like a singer in a band than a soloist.

It’s this warmth that struck me again during last week’s performance. I felt it whilst he was singing too, especially in the very lyrical passages. I even asked myself is he currently in love or something? He’s just so sweet! (in a good way; he’s not schmaltzy). Now if that sounds suspiciously effusive, do not worry, I’m not developing a countertenor crush 😉 it’s just a very pleasant, affectionate feeling, like towards my cats… I’m saying all this despite my not so hot feelings about his Sesto. I still think his personality would work with Sesto. It’s the rest that needs some work…

But this was a Baroque recital and this is his home turf, where everything goes the way he wants. The thing with seeing someone again in the same repertoire is that you already know what wows you. Franco seems to (really) like and excel at bravura arias, the faster the better, where he can sway to the beat and make melty faces. I think I tended to take them for granted (the melty faces, too; I brought my opera glasses along). Of course he would rock them.The lyrical stuff made a very vivid impression by contrast. His voice is not quintessentially beautiful like Sabadus’. It’s the tender and gentle feeling he puts into his delivery that makes his singing so affecting. Last year I wrote:

Very, very tender; maybe the gentlest-yet-not-whingy I’ve heard live?

Check and check. He sounds genuinely “loving” in a way none of the singers I like a lot does.

Franco Fagioli countertenor
Riccardo Minasi director, violin
Stefano Rossi violin
Esther Crazzolara violin
Giulio d’Alessio viola
Ludovico Minasi cello
Riccardo Coelati double bass
Federica Bianchi harpsichord

Angelo Ragazzi (c.1680-1750)
Sonata for strings in G major Op. 1 No. 8 Sonata for strings in… Op. 4

Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)
Passaggier che sulla sponda (Semiramide riconosciuta)

Johann Hasse (1699-1783)
Ebbi da te la vita (Siroe re di Persia)

Nicola Fiorenza (c.1700-1764)
Concerto in A major for 3 violins and continuo

Leonardo Leo (1694-1744)
Misero pargoletto (Demofoonte)

Johann Hasse
Fra l’orror della tempesta (Siroe re di Persia)

There seems to be a theme between Minasi and Franco where Minasi gets to clown around whilst Franco leaves the fans waiting for a bit. At the very beginning I was disconcerted as – though I may not show it – I worry about singers cancelling at the very last minute, such as right before they’re due to step on stage. Eventually I got it, Minasi is a funny character who reminds me of (even looks like) an equally funny ex-work colleague. He explained they would play another sonata and I hope it was this one they swapped and not the one after the interval. I know nothing about Ragazzi so I could be easily fooled. I also don’t buy programmes…

The first aria sounded good, enough to signal that Franco was in very good voice. I could even make out the words (woohoo). That was a short lived joy, though. The diction issue returned to stay for the rest of the performance. I amused myself guessing words.

Minasi and Franco recorded these arias for the Cafarelli CD, so cool to hear them without studio interference (f I had my way, all music would be recorded live). They fit his voice but to me they are a bit run-of-the-mill Baroque arias. Ok, Misero pargoletto warmed my heart due to Franco’s commitment to the tender emotions I was going on and on about above.


Pasquale Cafaro (c.1716-1787)
Rendimi più sereno (Ipermestra)

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna (Serse HWV40)

Angelo Ragazzi
Sonata for strings in F minor Op. 1 No. 4

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736)
Lieto così talvolta (Adriano in Siria)

Giuseppe Avitrano (c.1670-1756)
Sonata in D major for 3 violins and continuo Op. 3 No. 2 ‘L’Aragona’

George Frideric Handel
Crude furie degl’orridi abissi (Serse HWV40)

The tender feeling returned with Rendimi più sereno. The mood was switched to passive-aggressive tantrum for Se bramate… Easy win, it got stuck in my head for the rest of the evening. I wouldn’t mind seeing him as Serse, I think he can pull off bratty and his voice works very well with it.

He was properly warmed up by now for the lyrical tour de force that is Lieto così talvolta. Sadly there was no dueting oboe; for this woodwind lover = a big letdown. Still heartmelting. If you remember, it’s the real hero Farnace (in love) who sings it in Adriano in Siria. He’s such a dreamboat, isn’t he? Loyal to his king, to his love, respectful of all around him, risking his freedom to save his damsel even though he thinks she doesn’t love him anymore. In short, oboe. Before the show, Leander was eager to see who – Franco or Erica – would win the Lieto battle. Well, hm. I perhaps liked Franco’s voice better but enjoyed Erica’s details more. I demand a re-listen. Which reminds me, Opera Settecento needs to promote its work on youtube etc.

This brings us to Crude furie, which were properly furious and melty-faced a la Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy video 😉  or a gentle version of that. I was very pleased with the outcome, though less venomous than Mynenko’s version on The 5 Countertenors CD. Franco likes these arias but he sounds like he’s moved on from Barking. What is cool with Franco is his ample range (of colours t00) and the ease with which he can manipulate his voice.


Dopo notte (Ariodante)
Fra cento affanni… (Artaserse)

The Dopo notte test

Dopo notte was my introduction to Franco. It’s an aria I often use as a test for singers. It’s long, difficult to sing, very joyful in a soulful way, so it requires a bit of emotional finesse on top of mad skill. When I first heard about him as one of the most exciting countertenors around today, I immediately looked to see if youtube was equiped with his version of Dopo notte. We are here because I was very impressed with that I heard that day.

So when he announced he would sing something from Ariodante, I mentally crossed my fingers, chanting Dopo notte, Dopo notte! very loudly inside. My records say this was the first time I heard this favourite aria live (a bit surprising). I’ve always thought Ariodante was a gentle chap and this time he went for this quality.

Here’s his Dopo notte from this September past at the Festival d’Ambronay. You can compare it to my benchmark youtube clip from 2012 and see how much more soulful he does it these days. In fact the change – starting with the much more relaxed tempo – is striking and significant:

I really like the energy of the first one – we’re here because I do! – but his 2015 take on it is indeed more appropriate for Ariodante. So he’s changing. I’d miss the energy from the old days if this new tenderness wasn’t so attractive. He also received exciting support from the harpsichord, who did an excellent job matching his trills.

During the intermission, the Operatunist, Leander and HM launched into a conversation about Franco sounding better than before and tried to figure out why. HM suggested his registers sound more blended. You be the judge, my ears aren’t very sensitive when it comes to registers. For my part he sounded lovely (and I possibly agreed he sang a bit higher or brighter than how I remembered him) and that was that.

The last item was a bit funny, as Leander let us know ahead of time she was hoping for Vo solcando. When he asked the audience if we knew Artaserse I thought she’s getting her tune! Oops. Fra cento affanni is a fun one nonetheless, if way shorter and less complex than Vo solcando. It was a snappy rendition, an approapriate closer that left you wanting more.

And there was more, as Franco was signing autographs once again in the foyer. Every time I go to Wigmore Hall I feel compelled to sing its praises. What a pleasant hall! How welcoming and simple and what good acoustics! What a cosy foyer! Once you queued up for a signing there you will find all other signing locations a too drafty and anonymous. But this year we all agreed to leave others the pleasure of 2min of Franco’s attention.

It was of course lovely to see Leander and HM again – we started talking because of Franco! – and meet the Operatunist himself (we also started “talking” because of Franco), whose blog I recommend to those who don’t know it, because it’s well written and witty. Sorry if I sounded all over the shop, I had no idea you were coming to the show 😀 Sometimes I do succumb to surprise.

More Fagioli – Porpora: il maestro

Lucky us who enjoy the early 18th century repertoire! Although Baroque opera is still rather niche, the past 20 years or so have seen a steady increase in recordings, starting with a lot of Handel and Monteverdi. These days singers and conductors have become bolder and have ventured further afield, with Cavalli and Porpora getting more attention. With good reason, too, judging by the material on this CD, which I’ve had on repeat since Sunday.

If you were thinking Porpora, who? this is the disc to convince you of the man’s skills at crafting a memorable Baroque aria, be it bravura or a lyrical piece. I was, in fact, so impressed with the quality of the music included here that I’m now wondering why his stuff isn’t more popular yet. But I think it will soon be, with singers like FF promoting it. if you want to get an idea, here’s 23min of FF singing this material last week in Saint Petersburg:

Honorary mezzo FF is one of those singers you should see live to get the full picture; he’s a consumed performer, and, as I said in my recital review, his warm tone is best experienced in the flesh. So I was a bit apprehensive that the CD would not rise to the challenge of his electrifying live presence. Far from it. He and Academia Montis Regalis succeed in keeping the pizzazz high throughout the recording, with a cleverly balanced mix of fast and slow. The sign of an excellent singer is the capacity of fleshing out both blood pumping pieces and lyrical stuff. FF is equally engaging in both and I say this as a fussy listener. He really is that good.

Franco Fagioli FTW (Wigmore Hall, 21 September 2014)

fffI’m a traitor. Yep. Self confessed mezzo worshiper what do I do? Ask Franco Fagioli when he’s singing Sesto again. But you know what? If there’s one countertenor who deserves to sing Sesto it’s him. I know this because I just got back from seeing him sing Porpora1. Makes perfect sense, eh? Porpora, Mozart, that diddly-diddly 18th century stuff. FYI, he said he didn’t know when. But he added (without me twisting his arm) that Tito was a great piece. Not just an amazing singer but a smooth talker too 😉 Up close he struck me as very cuddly and surprisingly slightly built so I asked him if I could give him a hug. He obliged. Poor singers, see what they have to subject themselves to even after singing for their money?! This is a positive “review” so everyone’s a winner.