Amidst the current glut of conventional bel canto recordings, this one stands out for its unusual approach.
In his youth Max Emanuel Cencic was a boy soprano of the highest calibre, performing as a member of the Vienna Boys' Choir from 1987 to 1992 and making over twenty recordings. In 2001 he decided to make the transition to the countertenor voice and continue in the same register in which he had always sung, but this time in a cultivated rather than natural tone.
Of course, much of his repertoire consists of the baroque roles which had been written for castrati and are nowadays sung by altos or mezzo-sopranos as trouser roles. In this new album, Cencic flips that situation on its head and takes over Rossini's trouser roles which were written for women with low voices but lie very well for him as a countertenor with a similar range.
In the CD booklet Cencic observes that in the eighteenth century, the lead roles in opere buffe were usually written for prima donna sopranos whilst in opere serie they were taken by castrati. Cencic believes that Rossini's decision to give the main roles of his serious operas to mezzos was a continuation of this trend, and with Tancredi and Semiramide he's certainly got a point. On the other hand, the lead female parts in La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia, L'italiana in Algeri and Il turco in Italia also tend to be taken by mezzo-sopranos, and Rossini (like Handel) tended to write operas for the singers he had to hand rather than for pre-ordained types. For me, the important point is that with his special talents, Cencic can take on these virtuosic mezzo roles which are written for women dressed up as men and give them credibility because he's a man.
The most striking aspect of Cencic's voice is the richness of his tone, which just occasionally even resembles a female mezzo rather than a male countertenor. It's so full-blooded, in contrast to many countertenors who struggle to make a dramatic sound. 'In sì barbara sciagura' from Semiramide, for instance, is unbelievably taxing, with its choral contributions and fever-pitch cabaletta style. Yet if anything, the harder the challenge, the more Cencic seems to relish it. The performance of this aria is truly astounding, though 'Eccomi alfine in Babilonia' from the same opera runs it a close second.
At the other end of Rossini's career, the much-rewritten Tancredi is present in the form of the title character's cavatina, 'Oh patria! Dolce e ingrata patria'. It is afforded a heartfelt performance by Cencic, who particularly underlines the duality of Tancredi's feelings on seeing his homeland again - he describes it as 'sweet but ungrateful'.
Rossini's push towards operatic Romanticism is represented by two arias from La donna del lago (based on Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake). Cencic seems to have an awareness that the composer was trying to reform opera in this piece, and he creates a more plush tone and soaring legato to do them full justice. Meanwhile for the aria 'Dolci silvestri' from the rarely-heard Aureliano in Palmira, Cencic conjures up a sensuality in his voice which suits the long legato phrases (a forerunner to such a characteristic in Bellini's writing).
If there's a complaint, it's simply that there isn't enough singing on the album. Three long overtures take up well over twenty minutes of the running time. One of them is billed as the Overture to Aureliano in Palmira, which sounds promising in theory but in practice it is simply the much-recorded Overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia (which was used for several of his operas). We didn't really need new recordings of the Tancredi and Semiramide overtures either, even though they are played with rhythmic alertness by the Orchestre de Chambre de Genève under Michael Hoffstetter. The latter was apparently the brains behind the album, and he certainly provides stylistically correct accompaniments to all the arias on the disc.
Otherness is the essence of much opera; we're just fascinated by the exotic and the unusual, and even the angdrogynous headshot on the front of the album seems to point to the curiosity value of the recording. For this reason alone, Max Emanuel Cencic's extraordinary and fascinating new album of bel canto arias in the countertenor mode deserves attention. But ultimately, it's his visceral attack that makes it a 'must-buy'.