Camerata provides the five-star petrol for Cenčić’s Rolls Royce voice.

Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane
April 12, 2015

Nowadays, should you find yourself scouring the dust-gathering shelves of Europe’s great music libraries for rare volumes of Vivaldi, Vinci or Porpora, chances are you’ll have to fight off half a dozen countertenors scuttling to and fro in their quest for buried treasure. The current rediscovery of so much baroque repertoire is classical music’s boom industry and few figures yield riches quite like the German composer Johann Adolph Hasse (1699-1783). Hugely popular and successful in his time, Hasse contracted a celebrity marriage to the famous soprano Faustina Bordoni, was a friend of the likes of JS Bach and the librettist Pietro Metastasio, and was a key figure in the development of opera seria, bridging as he did the period from the high Baroque to the Classical.

In recent years, star Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić has been a man on a mission to restore Hasse to his rightful place in the musical firmament. Having released a disc of glittering arias last year (aptly named ‘Rokoko’) he’s followed through with involvement in a most impressive staging of Hasse’s opera Siroe, a recording that I’ve just reviewed for June’s Limelight. For his Australian debut at Brisbane Baroque, the singer chose to enlighten us with seven arias spanning Hasse’s lengthy career and a rich, rare programme it was indeed.

A key figure in the countertenor renaissance, Cenčić (38) is at the very top of his game after a remarkable 30-year career (he came to prominence at the age of six singing the Queen of the Night’s Die Hölle Rache on Croatian TV!) It’s a Rolls Royce voice, classy, smooth and purring like a well-oiled engine from top to bottom, and he cut quite a dash in his neatly trimmed beard, gold jacket and skinny-fit black pants. Given his stage experience and what one would imagine would be his unique familiarity with the material, it was perhaps odd then that he sang from sheet music for the entire recital, thus keeping his audience at something of a dramatic distance. Fortunately, on this occasion he was supported by Queensland’s Camerata of St. John’s, an ensemble also on top form in the fine acoustic of the QPAC concert hall. So, notwithstanding Cenčić’s sometimes head-down approach, and thanks to his masterly vocal expertise plus a tankful of Brisbane’s finest ensemble there was plenty to enjoy.

The first three arias made an ideal case for Hasse as the equal of anyone else around at the time. The melodious opener (Se mai senti, spirarti sul volto from 1759’s Tito Vespasiano), saw Cenčić revelling in Hasse’s languid lines, effortless connecting top and bottom registers, while his skilful and substantial decorations bejewelled the da capo. Solca il mar from 1729’s earlier Tigrane was a complete contrast, a bravura aria with a pair of horns, prompting some spectacular fireworks and impressive forays into the singer’s fearsome upper register. Notte amica, olio de mali from the appealing cantata Il Cantico de Tre Fanciulli, complete with pairs of oboes, flutes and horns, was a serene hymn to the night with a central section that pointed the way toward Gluck and Mozart. Cenčić was particularly skilled at spinning out the seemingly endless melodic line here, and offered a gorgeous cadenza.

The Camerata, directed by an indefatigable Brendan Joyce (he’d led the four-hour matinee of Faramondo a few hours previously), proved fine accompanists in the Hasse, but even finer were their solo contributions between arias. As an ensemble they are stylish, highly communicative and blessed with a sense of real enjoyment in their music making. A spirited Locatelli Introduzione Teatrali with whirling string lines was followed by a bustling excerpt from Telemann’s underrated Wassermusik with its warbling oboes and gurgling bassoon. Their highly energetic Dance of the Furies from Gluck’s Orphée et Euridice was staggeringly well done, the full ensemble extracting every last ounce of dramatic potential and then managing a clever segue into Bach’s famous Air on the G String, a moment of great intimacy which saw them pull the focus down to just five excellent players.

The second half saw Cenčić opening with a classic ‘stormy sea metaphor’ aria di furia from Olympiade (Siam navi’all onde) complete with rampant bassoon and follow up with two arias from Hasse’s Siroe: La sorte mia tiranna with its sophisticated melodic line and Fra dubbi affetti miei with its lovely waltz-time swing and rumbustious string writing. Both benefitted from the familiarity of performance, but were still sung from the music despite the fact that the soloist is down to appear in the opera in Budapest later this week. That aside, the vocal display was near faultless, showcasing Cenčić’s golden tone as well as his notable agility.

The encore was a fetching aria from Wagenseil’s Euridice drawing forth some welcome dramatic fireworks. Having never heard a Wagenseil opera, might this be Cenčić’s next rescue mission? One can but hope.

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