John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
March 11, 2012
While not so common as recitals sung by sopranos and tenors, recitals by male altos, or countertenors, turn up often enough these days to suggest that the early music revolution has been won. The charismatic American countertenor David Daniels has done much to lead the way, both on the recital stage and in the opera house, and in so doing has opened many doors for the next generation of important countertenors.
Few of these young countertenors has risen farther or faster, or for as good a reason, as Iestyn Davies. The splendid British countertenor took time out from singing in a new production of Handel’s “Rinaldo” at Lyric Opera (where he is sharing the roster with Daniels and conductor Harry Bicket) to take top billing in an all-Handel concert with the Chicago period instruments group Baroque Band, under Bicket’s direction, Saturday night at Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.
The performance was as flawless as countertenor singing gets. It could hardly have been otherwise, because Davies has everything needed to make it so. This is one of the most sheerly beautiful male alto voices before the public. The warmth and sweetness of his timbre are allied to a splendid technique and musicality that allow him to shape, focus and spin long phrases with disarming ease and penetrating expressive intelligence over a wide range.
Handel wrote his Italian operas to capitalize on the vocal virtuosity of the castrati, or altered male singers, who were the vocal superstars of his time. But he also employed countertenors (whose voice ranges were similar to those of castrati) in the English oratorios that occupied the latter part of his career. Davies devoted the first half of his program to arias from four such oratorios, plus two from the quasi-opera “Semele.”
Florid and brilliant arias from “Saul,” “Jephtha” and “Semele” were set against slower and more contemplative ones, all of them buoyed by Bicket’s equally stylish leadership of the continuo group from a small harpsichord.
“Up the Dreadful Step Ascending,” from “Jephtha,” was a triumph of coloratura agility; every vocal leap, descent and run was nailed with assured musicality. “Your Tuneful Voice,” from “Semele,” not only displayed the firmness of Davies’ low register but also proved an object-lesson in how ornamentation of the da capo section, when artfully applied, can enhance the emotion expressed in the text.
“Splenda l’Alba in oriente,” a compact Italian cantata in praise of virtue, made a delightful discovery, its virtuoso vocal lines topped off here with a pair of sopranino recorders. Three arias from the opera “Partenope” traced the ardent lover Arsace’s growing heartbreak, including the affecting “Ch’io parta” and the thrilling vocal showpiece, “Furibondo spira il vento.” An aria from “Rodelinda,” the Handel opera with which Davies made his Metropolitan Opera debut last fall (also under Bicket’s baton), made a charming encore.
Mark well the name Iestyn Davies. You’re going to be hearing a lot from him in the years to come.
In the purely instrumental portions of the program — the overture to “Jephtha,” a sinfonia from “Semele” and the “Alexander’s Feast” Concerto Grosso in C major — the crisp, lively playing Bicket drew from Baroque Band was a noticeable improvement over some recent performances the ensemble has delivered sans conductor. This is his second guest engagement with Garry Clarke’s group following his debut a year ago (with another ace Handelian, soprano Lucy Crowe, as soloist). One hopes he returns as often as possible.
The one shameful omission was that of texts and translations for the vocal works.