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.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa