|Michael Maniaci is one of the few male sopranos. (Michael Cooper)|
A surprising soprano near the top of his game
In the wake of the countertenor revival, can the day of the male soprano be far behind? According to the Male Soprano Page on the Web, some two dozen male sopranos, or "sopranists," as they are sometimes called, are making professional careers singing roles written for the fabled castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as modern music by such composers as Alfred Schnittke and Thomas Bloch. These are generally falsetto singers who have developed their upper range, or men who have hormonal abnormalities that stopped the maturation of their voice. Michael Maniaci, who appeared with Boston Baroque on Friday night at Jordan Hall, is one of the latter. His artistry is exquisite.
Maniaci's voice sounds like some beautiful, unknown woodwind. It has a white, disembodied sound and little vibrato, and it can sustain long phrases on even breath. He launches the tone easily, without hoisting; it just floats in from somewhere. Of course, he lacks the warm colors of a woman's voice, and Mozart very much wanted these for his Cherubino (the pageboy in "The Marriage of Figaro" who was originally and is typically sung by a woman). Maniaci sang both of Cherubino's arias beautifully, adding light ornamentation and amusing stage expressions. His voice thins out in the lower register, where a mezzo-soprano's voice broadens and where Mozart's dipping vocal line suggests the lad's emerging, tentative, eager sexuality. (In fact, the register leaps in "Voi lo sapete" are a beautiful joke on the breaking male teenage voice, a joke that only a woman's voice can make!)
It would have been interesting to hear Mozart's early motet "Exsultate, jubilate," which was written for castrato. This would have suited Maniaci's floating tone and tested his high C. No doubt he has one. He sang a pair of bright B-flats in "Parto, parto," Sesto's aria from "La Clemenza di Tito," and he seemed to have more range to go.
Sesto is one of the few roles Mozart wrote for a castrato, so the range is right, and Maniaci sang with a beautiful, long line, to the lovely obbligato accompaniment of clarinetist Nina Stern. Only when the aria turns to revenge, and more thrust is needed, was he less than convincing. Castrati had enormous lung capacity and were famous for their power. Still, Maniaci is a very fine musician, and one hopes to hear him again soon in a longer, more varied program.
Beethoven's Eighth and Fifth symphonies bookended the program, with Boston Baroque's "classical" orchestra amplified with piccolo, contrabassoon, and three trombones. Safe choices, safely conducted. Conductor Martin Pearlman set moderate tempos that didn't vary much. The Haydnesque humor of the Eighth did not emerge until the last movement, when it popped out delightfully. The opening of the Fifth, with its subtle overlays of the famous four-note motto, had some smudged ensemble work, but the musicians quickly settled into a fiery, exciting performance. Their period instruments revealed subtle harmonies and echoes that disappear under the heavy brass and brilliant strings of modern orchestras. At times during this performance, the Fifth Symphony sounded new again.