Lezhneva, Fagioli in concert at the TCE

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Tuesday March 27 2018

Conductor: Andres Gabetta. Julia Lezhneva, soprano. Franco Fagioli, counter-tenor. Cappella Gabetta.
  • Vivaldi: Concerto for strings and continuo RV 156
  • Porpora: Motet "In caelo stelle care"
  • Ragazzi: Sonata for violin and orchestra Op.1 No.8
  • Vivaldi: Nisi Dominus
  • Pergolesi: Stabat Mater P77 
"Most countertenors, Italians more than others, look like vegan consumptives on a bad day and sound - if you can hear them at all - like gas escaping from a (small) pipe," I wrote in 2013. Fortunately, it doesn't apply to all of them. Franco Fagioli is a case in point. I had noted, writing about a Giulio Cesare at the Champs Elysées in 2006, that "Franco Fagioli was the right kind of 'stage animal' counter-tenor to give us a petulant, if not always accurate, Tolomeo." Ten years later, I saw him as Cavalli's Eliogabalo at Garnier: "Franco Fagioli was most impressive in his rich and grainy, expressive middle range, not in virtuoso runs at the top, where his projection dropped considerably. His diction, however, is non-existent..."

It was very interesting now to hear him in concert, where he could stand at the front of the stage in a reasonably-sized house, in religious rather than operatic works, backed by a small string ensemble. It's true that it was hard to tell what language he was singing in, even so, though I did eventually pick up the Doxology, confirming it was Latin. But his warm, "sherry commercial" timbre is fascinating and, yes, he's beautifully expressive, with nice phrasing and good control of dynamics.

It was interesting, too, to hear Julia (or Yulia or Iulia) Lezhneva (or Lejneva) in equally propitious circumstances. I'd only heard her once before, all of 12 years ago in Les Huguenots in Brussels: "Yulia Lezhneva scored a popular hit as the page." I was surprised to find she now has quite a hard, edgy, masculine timbre, bringing to mind (perhaps also because she is sparing with vibrato) a boy soprano nearing puberty, though of course she isn't a boy but an adult woman, so she sings louder. In fact, a sound something like a higher, louder countertenor and not always pleasant. Her diction is no better than Fagioli's - in fact even worse: I couldn't catch a word. The top notes don't come easily, to my ear, but her articulation in very rapid passages is very impressive.

She was therefore quite well-matched in timbre, rather than contrasting, with her partner and there seemed to be good "chemistry" between them. I overheard the people behind, however, complaining of imbalance: that she covered Fagioli's falsetto with her natural-voiced volume - not something I noticed to such an extent. Their encore, a very fast "Caro" - "Bella" duet from Giulio Cesare, was super - the best part of the evening, as encores often turn out to be.

The Capella Gabetta is, as I said, a small ensemble, with six violins, two violas, two cellos and a bass, plus a lute and a harpsichord. Mr Gabetta went for fairly zippy, unsentimental tempi throughout. My neighbour, a charming, blue-eyed Norman, thought the Stabat Mater could have benefited from more religious gravitas. A jaunty, calypso ring-tone that rang out right at the start was no help. The interaction between players was visibly attentive, the flexible interplay was pleasant, but the small numbers left the odd tuning glitch exposed.

I know Porpora has devotees these days but I will say anyway that I found it a relief to get back from him and Ragazzi to Händel and Vivaldi. You saw why they are better known.


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