By FERNANDA EBERSTADT
One afternoon last July, a small, anxious crowd gathered in the lobby of Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, hoping for a glimpse of Philippe Jaroussky, the young French countertenor who was to give a Baroque recital later that night. Among them were a Japanese woman in a black-and-white houndstooth coat, carrying a candy-pink shopping-bag with a DVD of a Kurosawa film that she intended to present to him, and a Russian violin teacher from Bremen wearing a sapphire ball gown. This was the kernel of die-hard Jaroussky admirers who follow the singer around the world, posting live videos of his concerts on YouTube and commiserating on his fan sites with fellow devotees who’d been unable to get to Sydney or Basel.
Jaroussky made his professional debut singing Scarlatti at a French summer festival in 1999, when he was 21. He was fortunate in his timing. In the last few decades, much of the Baroque repertory — the operas and sacred music of composers like Monteverdi, Purcell and Gluck, as well as that of lesser-known masters — has enjoyed a widespread revival. And with it, that most startling of voices, the countertenor — a grown man who sings like a turbo-charged choirboy, performing the roles of heroes or saints that were originally written for a castrato and that are often sung by a female mezzo-soprano.
Forty years ago, there were perhaps half a dozen countertenors on the world stage. Today the South Carolinian David Daniels or the German Andreas Scholl fill concert halls and opera houses, and every season brings a new wonder boy from Croatia or the Ukraine. The 32-year-old Jaroussky’s exceptionally pure voice, combined with his cherubic good looks, have won him a passionate following.
“When I heard Philippe Jaroussky for the first time, I was struck by his musicality and sensibility,” Cecilia Bartoli, who sang with him in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare,” wrote in an e-mail. “There is a beauty in his phrasing and a delicacy, if not fragility in his soul, that touches the listener profoundly.” The legendary English countertenor James Bowman says that “Jaroussky sounds like the boy Bach would have loved to write for.”
The countertenorial voice — a high girlish tone produced by using the outer edges of the vocal cords — is something of an acquired taste, continually teetering on the knife edge between creepy and sublime. Jaroussky himself is well aware of what he describes as its “element of repulsion.”
“It’s true that there is something potentially ridiculous about this voice coming out of a man’s body,” Jaroussky told me when we first met. “People talk about the countertenor being a third sex, or something quasi female, but I think for me it’s more a way of staying a child.”
Indeed, throughout history, male sopranos, whether in sacred music, opera or pop, have been prized as much for an ideal of angelic purity as for romantic heroism. The voice does not, as some might have it, appeal chiefly to gay men: much of pre-19th-century opera — or for that matter, Shakespearean comedy — is based on the understanding that what drives a woman wild is a boy who may or may not be a girl.
At 8:30 p.m., Jaroussky, tall and slim in a black suit with a pleated white dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar, ran down the steps leading to the Concertgebouw’s stage with the buoyancy of a kid who prefers sliding down banisters.
Jaroussky specializes in reviving the works of now-forgotten Baroque composers. Tonight, accompanied by the Concerto Köln, he was singing a sequence of opera arias by the early-18th-century composer Antonio Caldara, which he has since recorded and will release as an album in the United States next month. Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw is one of the world’s most acoustically perfect concert halls. Even in the topmost row of this 2,000-seat auditorium, you could hear Jaroussky’s luscious tones sail up from the stage below with heartrending precision, his often-naked voice rippling, diving and soaring, in improvised ornamentations that were by turns jitterbug fast and perturbingly slow.
By the time he reached his encore of Porpora’s “Alto Giove,” an aria composed for the great Italian castrato Farinelli, the audience was on its feet, stamping and cheering.
The countertenor is a 20th-century phenomenon, the approximation of an art that has luckily been lost to us. Much of the sacred music and opera roles sung today by Jaroussky or by mezzo-sopranos like Cecilia Bartoli were originally composed for Farinelli and his peers — male singers who were castrated before they reached puberty in order to preserve their high, pure voices. This act of oversophisticated barbarism, supposedly a response to St. Paul’s edict in the Corinthians (mulier taceat in ecclesia, “women should be silent in church”), kept the papal choirs and ducal courts of Europe supplied with sopranos for their Vivaldi oratorios. By the 17th-century, when public decency laws forbade women to appear onstage in the papal states, castrati were moving into the recently invented art of opera, playing male and occasionally female roles, much as boys did on the Elizabethan stage. By the 18th century, a large percentage of male opera singers were castrati.
Today most countertenors regard castrati as a gold standard that cannot be matched. For a start, their hormonal peculiarities gave castrati an unbeatable advantage. “Their rib cages were absolutely enormous, like battery chickens, and they never needed to breathe,” the opera historian Rupert Christiansen told me. This lung capacity made their voices more powerful than a woman’s or a boy’s, while their child-size vocal cords enabled them to zip up and down registers with dizzying speed and agility. The 18th-century musicologist Charles Burney describes a (possibly apocryphal) lung-power contest between the young Farinelli and a German trumpeter, in which Farinelli, having finally exhausted his rival, “not only swelled and shook the note, but ran the most rapid and difficult divisions, and was at last silenced only by the acclamations of the audience.”
The leading castrati were the pop stars of the 18th century. When Farinelli — whose voice spanned almost three octaves — appeared onstage, an Englishwoman supposedly cried, “One God, one Farinelli!” and others fainted. His salary for one London season was 2,000 guineas, with as much again earned in “tips” from noble admirers, about $1 million in today’s money. Jaroussky, who has recorded an album of arias sung by the castrato Carestini, confesses to “a great tenderness for castrati,” who mostly came from very poor families and were sold by their parents like slaves. “There was a form of hysteria: they were gods onstage, nonexistent in society. They were forbidden to marry, although women prized them as lovers because there was no danger of having children. Once their voices were gone, they were finished. And of course, thousands of children were sacrificed to find one beautiful voice.” By the early 19th century, the new style of romantic opera perfected by composers like Rossini — not to mention more muscular ideas of masculine sex appeal — was putting them out of business, although it was not till 1903 that the Vatican officially outlawed the use of castrati. Yet these maimed idols, these eunuchs to the kingdom of art, continued to haunt our collective psyche. In his tale “Sarrasine” (1830), Balzac recounts the hero’s fatal obsession with La Zambinella, a ravishing diva who he refuses to accept is actually a man. The Danish writer Isak Dinesen, in her short story “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” portrays the supernatural love between a young castrato and a girl trapped in an arranged marriage. To Dinesen, castrati, like women, were tragic chattel in a world defined by male power.
Sometimes you get the impression that Jaroussky regards the great castrati as ghostly forebears. “When I imagine the color of their voices,” he reflects, “it seems to me they must have always carried with them the drama of their woundedness, as Callas does.”
The first time I heard Jaroussky sing was at the Teatro Real in Madrid last May. He was playing the role of Nerone in Monteverdi’s “Incoronazione di Poppea,” in a performance by William Christie and his Baroque orchestra Les Arts Florissants. Christie, a harpsichordist who is largely responsible for the latest revival of Baroque, insists on the music’s “otherness.” His approach — training musicians to play period instruments; teaching singers an archaic style of diction in which first the words are declaimed and only afterward the note is sung — has paradoxically made the music more attractive.
Clad in a floor-length robe of black rooster plumes and wearing white pancake makeup and black lipstick, Jaroussky portrayed the Roman emperor as a kind of androgynous dreamer, persuasively conveying the sexual ambiguity that can make Baroque opera seem so contemporary.
The next afternoon, we met at a sunlit cafe in downtown Madrid. In person, Jaroussky resembles an overgrown schoolboy. Rosy-cheeked, with wavy black hair, sparkling green eyes and full lips, he has a mobile, vivid face that continually flushes and lights up with the emotions and ideas he is expressing.
Jaroussky (the Russian surname comes from a grandfather who fled the Bolshevik Revolution) is a child of the upper-middle-class Parisian suburbs. The milieu in which he grew up was serious-minded, professional. At age 11, he took up the violin with a passion, winning first prize at the Conservatory of Versailles, but he was told he started too late to make it a career. Same with piano. His musical epiphany came at 18, when he went to a Baroque concert, at which Fabrice di Falco, a sopranist from Martinique, happened to be singing.
Di Falco is an intriguingly offbeat choice of role model. With a voice that glides eerily from baritone to soprano, he is equally at home singing Bach or performing with the African jazz saxophonist Manu Dibango. “I was shocked by the disjunction between his physique and that high crystalline voice,” Jaroussky recalled. “He had this beautifully androgynous face, and a voice like Barbara Hendricks. As soon as I heard him, I had the strangest feeling that I could do that, too. I knew right away that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Singing had an added charm: as an instrumentalist, he spent his life being told, What a pity you began too late. Suddenly people were saying, You’re only 18? Don’t rush things. He approached Di Falco’s voice coach, Nicole Fallien, who is still Jaroussky’s teacher and whom he described to me as “my second mother.”
When I visited Fallien in Paris, she recalled their first meeting. “Philippe came to me and asked me to teach him how to sing,” she said. “He had a lovely voice, but tiny. I said, ‘Maybe you should stick with the violin.’ He said: ‘I want to sing. And what’s more, I want to sing in a head voice ’ ” — the falsetto used by countertenors — “which means even smaller. I said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll succeed.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry; I’m sure’ — not to be arrogant, but to encourage me. Well, he wasn’t wrong.”
Fallien enrolled him in a summer course taught by the celebrated French countertenor Gerard Lesne, who immediately invited Jaroussky to sing in the Scarlatti oratorio “Sedecia.” Music critics were struck by what one reviewer referred to as Jaroussky’s “liquid” and “ethereal” tone.
“That same week,” he recalled, “Jean-Claude Malgoire” — a French conductor specializing in Baroque music — “asked me to do a Monteverdi cycle. Two engagements in my first week — it was a bit crazy! Now when I hear recordings from that period, my voice sounds so tight and childish, and yet there was something touching about it too.”
Three years later, he founded his own group, the Artaserse Ensemble, to explore the works of lesser-known Baroque composers, taking advantage of the fact that most scores of operas popular in the 18th century now lie moldering in library archives. “I take pleasure in rediscovering things that have been forgotten,” he said. “There’s a sly side to it too: when you are the first to record a song, you aren’t under the same pressure as if you were performing Bach’s ‘Magnificat.’ It’s virgin territory.”
Jaroussky may see himself as the successor to the Italian singers of the 18th century, but in fact, the modern-day countertenor movement was born in England, where historically castrati were a high-priced import and composers like Handel were obliged to be fairly flexible about whether their Thracian princes were sung by female mezzos or castrati.
Last June, I met James Bowman at his club on London’s Pall Mall. Bowman is a tall, florid-faced gentleman who might be mistaken for a retired university lecturer. In fact, he was one of the most influential countertenors of the 20th century. (He still gives public recitals at age 69, much to the consternation of those who assume that the fragility of the voice means it packs it in early.) The countertenor revival, according to Bowman, began with Alfred Deller, a Canterbury Cathedral chorister. “Countertenors have been around for years: every church choir in England had them,” Bowman told me. “But Deller was the first countertenor people wanted to hear on his own. He brought the voice out of the choir and onto the concert platform. And Deller was the first to record commercially: he was huge in America,” where his late-’50s recordings of traditional English songs coincided with a growing folk-music revival. In 1960 he sang the role of Oberon in Benjamin Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Alfred Deller’s voice was lovely, but as the critic Rupert Christiansen explained to me, he had a very narrow range. “Today recordings of Deller’s voice sound genteel and teeny-weeny,” he said. “And he had no interest in acting. It is James Bowman who is venerated as being the one who broke the mold, opening up the opera repertory for countertenors.” Profiting from Bowman’s example, a younger generation of countertenors arose, with voices powerful enough to hold their own with mezzo-sopranos. In 1988, the American Jeffrey Gall (who was Marilyn Horne’s understudy in Handel’s “Orlando”) became the first countertenor to sing a major role at the Met. Today, according to Christiansen, the new battleground is the early-19th-century repertory, with younger singers taking on Rossini and Bellini roles written for contraltos.
The countertenor voice is suddenly money. Last year, Virgin released a recording of Handel’s “Faramondo.” When the opera opened in 1738, Handel could afford only one castrato; many of the remaining male roles were assumed by women. In the 2009 recording, all the male roles are sung by men. “Each week, I discover a new countertenor on the Internet,” Jaroussky told me. “It’s very challenging, all these young ones coming up behind me. It’s exciting too.” Jaroussky’s rendition of Vivaldi’s “Vedro con mio diletto” has received more than 1.3 million hits on YouTube. Thirty years ago, he would have been lucky to fill half a church on a Saturday afternoon.
“The Baroque repertory appeals to us today because of its audacity, its combination of rationality and freedom,” William Christie told me when I met him after his “Incoronazione di Poppea” in Madrid. “A Venetian composer in the early 18th century behaved the same way as a New Orleans jazzman in the early 20th century. There was a spirit of improvisation, a horror of sameness. Baroque composers pushed to the limit the idea of spontaneity.”
Jaroussky, who performs a “jazz” version of Monteverdi with the Austrian lutenist Christina Pluhar’s chamber orchestra “L’Arpeggiata,” agrees. “Who are we to know that Monteverdi wasn’t playing blue notes?”
The morning after his Amsterdam recital, Jaroussky sat in his hotel garden, talking about future projects, including a contemporary opera about the painter Caravaggio.
He spoke the night before of the recent shift in attitudes toward gender that has given his métier political resonance. “Finally, after three centuries, we are getting closer to the more open sexual codes of the Baroque, where no one found it in the least surprising that Farinelli was singing the part of Cleopatra and that a woman was singing Julius Caesar!”
When he first began, Jaroussky told me, he was obsessed by the idea of what's natural. “I always ask myself, Does this seem natural? We countertenors are in perpetual search for sincerity. We lie a bit, we fudge, we are in a constant state of doubt and conflict, searching for a grace that escapes us. What’s especially difficult for a light, airy voice like mine is to find solid ground — to anchor the voice in my body.”
Who Can Resist a Man Who Sings Like a Woman?