Music: A Balding Handelian

The new classical recording I’ve been listening to lately is “Sento La Gioia,” “Ombra Cara,” the first solo album for the American countertenor Bejun Mehta. Like most countertenors, he does a lot of his work in baroque opera, singing parts that were originally written for castrati, so the album naturally focuses on the work of the most popular baroque opera composer, Handel.

Because the countertenor voice is a manufactured voice — no one sings like that naturally except, again, castrati — many countertenors are unsuccessful baritones who decided to try falsetto singing. That describes Mehta; having had little success as a musician as an adult, he became a record producer (a common occupation for people who know music but can’t make a living performing it). In the late ’90s, when baroque opera exploded in popularity and countertenors like David Daniels were becoming increasingly popular choices for castrato parts, Mehta decided to convert himself into a countertenor, and found he was really good at it; within only a few years he was one of the best in the business.

There are pluses and minuses to having a castrato part sung by a countertenor. The absolute most important thing, of course, is that these are parts that were written to be played by men, and unless you assign them to a countertenor, you have to cast them with women. It’s fine to have a teenaged boy played by a woman, but many of these characters are heroes and warriors and, in the most popular baroque opera, Julius Caesar. And it’s hard to create a theatrically believable production when you have a woman pretending to be a Roman emperor.

The disadvantage is that the countertenor is not (thank God) a castrato and isn’t always equipped, vocally, for the demands of these parts. The lead roles in these operas require leading-man and leading-lady type of voices that can fill a theatre. A falsetto voice is limited in power and volume, meaning that countertenors tend to have greater success in concert than in opera houses. René Jacobs, the conductor of Mehta’s album, used to be a very successful countertenor himself, but now that he’s a successful conductor, he usually gives the biggest castrato parts to women because he feels that voices like his are not up to the vocal demands.

Mehta has had more success in the theatre than most countertenors, though. And while what a voice can do in the theatre doesn’t matter on a record, the recording does give an idea of why he’s become one of the better operatic countertenors. First, his voice really does sound “manly,” very important for a falsetto singer who wants to play operatic parts (as opposed to something like Messiah where the singers have no fixed gender). He manages to give it enough weight and variety of colour that it sounds like a guy with a high voice, rather than a guy trying to sound like a soprano. There are moments that remind you that some of these very difficult pieces — like the long tour de force mad scene from Orlando, an opera that has nothing to do with Florida — were written for a singer with a richer lower range than a countertenor can muster, but for the most part, his technique and diction are so good, and the voice so pleasing in timbre, that you don’t get the feeling that you’re “settling” for a countertenor.

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