Following hard on the heels of Philippe Jaroussky's recent disc of 'Forgotten Castrato Arias', comes this new disc from 'male soprano' Michael Maniaci. For his debut with the American label Telarc, Maniaci has chosen an all Mozart program of arias originally composed for soprano castrato. In addition to vocal selections from the operas Lucio Silla, Idomeneo, and La clemenza di Tito, the disc includes overtures to the latter two operas as well as Mozart's most famous motet, Exsultate, Jubilate.
I give Maniaci and his collaborators (most notably, conductor Martin Pearlman) credit for choosing music written specifically with a male singer in mind. With the meteoric rise in popularity of 'counter-tenors' over the last fifteen years, many of the most famous exponents have recorded repertoire originally composed for female singers (usually mezzo-sopranos) in addition to the more obvious castrato repertoire. Thus, the boundaries of the counter-tenor 'fach' have become fuzzy, with modern-day male falsettists and female mezzo-sopranos competing for roles and repertoire in an ever more crowded field.
As mentioned by Martin Pearlman in his liner note, Maniaci describes himself as a 'male-soprano' rather than a 'counter-tenor': His voice 'seems to sit most naturally in the soprano register… [it ascends] to a soprano high C, and [is] most comfortable in the two octave register from high C to middle C.' Maniaci claims that this range – at least on the high end – is about a sixth higher than that of many counter-tenors. Indeed, he illustrates his points quite effectively with the singing on this disc. Not only does he successfully reach to multiple high C's, but his range is also gratifyingly wide, encompassing well over two octaves and reaching down to approximately a third below middle C. This remarkable compass extends nearly an octave further than Jaroussky's. Regardless of the label he chooses for himself however, like all counter-tenors, Maniaci sings exclusively in falsetto – a technique that may offer a glimpse of the bygone castrato sound, but we will never know for sure.
Singing in falsetto holds the same drawbacks for Maniaci as for all counter-tenors. There is a lack of power, due to the total absence of chest resonance, and also a persistent tendency to lose focus on the center of individual pitches. Thus, dynamic variations are restricted, and he is unable to produce a true forte without distorting the tone. In its upper reaches, his voice often has a beguiling beauty, but there can also be a 'hooty' quality that undermines the masculinity and strength of the characters he portrays. And finally, despite his obvious attention to the texts, with so much 'loft' in the sound, his words are often unintelligible. On the positive side, Maniaci offers excellent musicianship, with long-breathed phrasing and tasteful ornamentation. Additionally, he sings with consistently rounded tone, and a timbre that remains firm throughout his range – again, unlike some counter-tenors who tend to fade away in tone and volume at the high and low extremes. Maniaci's tone fades out only at the very bottom of his range (below middle C), making the listener long for the robust chest register a mezzo-soprano can offer. It is in matters of agility that Maniaci truly shines, offering a reliable trill and above average skill in coloratura over his entire range. Only in the most taxing passages – such as the climax of Sesto's 'Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio' – does he lose a bit of composure while striving to crank out the notes at lightning speed.
Even with Maniaci's strong technical skills and exceptional vocal range, it is difficult to make an argument for preference of this particular voice type over a fluent mezzo-soprano. His tone is appropriately androgynous, but there have been mezzo-sopranos who have achieved this same effect (Genaux, Podles, Mijanovic). Among counter-tenors, Maniaci certainly stands out for the technical reasons cited above, as well as for the cool beauty of his sound. It is also refreshing to hear a singer who is unafraid to test the limits of his voice and abilities. Certainly, the flair and excitement of his singing easily outshines Jaroussky's bland mellifluousness.
Martin Pearlman and the period-performance ensemble Boston Baroque provide adequate accompaniments without adding anything particularly special to the proceedings. The general lack of impression they make may be attributable to the recording quality, which places the orchestra well to the rear of the voice, giving the accompaniments a muted quality and suppressing much color and instrumental detail. The woodwinds fair best, with strong contributions to 'Parto, parto…' from the principal clarinet, and the oboes in Exsultate, Jubilate. For my own listening, I added a treble boost to bring some much-needed 'brightness' to the sound quality. Overall, despite the many caveats, I think this is an impressive debut for Maniaci, and will be quite interested to watch as his career develops.