Mozart: Arias for Male Soprano (CD review)

Michael Maniaci, male soprano; Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque.  Telarc TEL-31827-02.

This one might take a little getting used to. As first listening, one would easily mistake Michael Maniaci's voice for that of a woman's. But a few minutes in, and you begin wondering if the voice isn't just a little huskier, a little more robust, or a tad mellower than the usual soprano.

Telarc's booklet notes inform us that castrati voices were common throughout Europe from about the mid-sixteenth century on, owing to the Bible's injunction against women speaking in churches (I. Corinthians, 14:34). By Mozart's day, however, people generally frowned upon the practice and it began dying out. In the composer's later life he was transcribing his parts for castrato voice for tenors.

On this disc we get five arias from three of Mozart's operas for which he originally wrote castrati singing parts, Idomeneo, Lucio Silla, and La Clemenza di Tito, plus the solo motet Exsultate, Jubilate. The album lasts just over an hour, and Boston Baroque Orchestra accompany Mr. Maniaci, who describes himself not as a "castrato," thank heaven, but as a natural male soprano. As he says, "While my vocal cords lengthened and thickened somewhat, they didn't do so to the extent that most men experience." Therefore, not only do we get to hear something resembling the male castrato voice, we get to hear Mr. Maniaci supported by an orchestra playing on period instruments, much as Mozart would have heard.

Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what any voice or any orchestra actually sounded like in the days before recordings, but I think we can be comfortably sure that this is a pretty good approximation.

The question, I suppose, is why we should care whether Mr. Maniaci's voice approximates an actual castrato or not. I mean, after all, by the twentieth century the castrati were practically nonexistent, and women had taken over the high notes. So, is Maniaci's voice a mere curiosity, is it a reminder for the purist of days gone by, or is it a genuine listening pleasure for the here and now? I'd say the latter.  The voice may appear a touch odd at first, and one might wonder why a woman or a counter-tenor hadn't just done the singing. But as you listen, you begin to hear the sheer beauty of Maniaci's tone, a sound quite unlike anything a woman or a man generally produces.

As for Telarc's sound, it complements the voice, being somewhat mellow and warm itself. Don't expect ultimate transparency here, though. The acoustic is rather underwhelming for audiophiles expecting more air around the instruments, more stage depth, more clear-cut definition, and the like. Instead, you may find the sound somewhat veiled and soft; yet, as I say, that's probably what Mr. Manciaci's voice needs to make the best impression.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa