Interview: Countertenor Raffaele Pè on New CD & Upcoming Roles

By Alan Neilson

Raffaele Pè is a singer very much in demand. Having been carefully building his reputation over the past few years, he now appears to have catapulted himself into the limelight with his latest CD of 18th century arias, written by a variety of composers, for the character of Giulio Cesare.

Not only has it received excellent reviews from critics across the globe, but it has also managed to enter the top 10 listing in Germany’s classical chart, received airtime on BBC Radio 3 as well as other acclaimed radio stations, and was made “The Times” newspaper’s “Disk of the week” and currently stands in its classical top 20 album chart. Offers of further recordings, recitals at prestigious venues, and prominent roles are now starting to flood in.

Prior to watching Raffaele Pè sing the part of Goffredo in Handel’s “Rinaldo” at the Teatro Grande in Brescia he was kind enough to take time out for an interview with Operawire.

Operawire: You say in your program notes to the CD “Giulio Cesare: A Baroque Hero” that Handel is the “inescapable testing ground.” Could you elaborate a little on what exactly you meant by this?

Raffaele Pè: Handel is a very difficult composer to get right. As with most baroque music, at first the music can appear to be fairly easy, but if you want to make it work, you must be able to understand it at its deepest level, and the expression must grow out of this understanding. Handel’s characterization of the affect of each aria is often extremely neat and precise, molded perfectly to fit the dramatic development of the character. It is important that when interpreting Handel that you keep in mind this bigger picture, while at the same time paying close attention to the smaller details that reside in the melody.

OW: The arias were written for castrati. Can the countertenor bring to life an “acoustically and visually valid reconstruction” of the duality at the heart of the art of the castrati?

RP: In recent years theater directors and audiences seem to be more and more interested in a realistic operatic performances, probably due to the success of the verismo movement, in the previous century. It has now developed into something what contemporary artists call “hyper-realism.”

Today, in baroque operas a king or a male hero – the usual roles of castrati – has to be impersonated by a man in order to help the audience better identify with the character. Cesare is a man, not a woman! You must use the expressive possibilities of the male voice in order to capture the characteristics of a male hero.

Of course, the magic still has to be achieved by the voice, and the countertenor has a very unexpected and surprising sound, it reveals unprecedented emotional qualities which can stimulate the imagination and the empathy of the listeners. This is exactly what the castrati were made for. If the roles are sung by traditional voice types we actually move away from a realistic image, so that it becomes more abstract.

OW: The CD is entitled “Giulio Cesare: A Baroque Hero,” and in it you want to explore the character of Cesare. What were your conclusions as to how musicians from the baroque period viewed Cesare and to what extent were they a reflection of the period itself?

RP: The libretti focus on the human aspects of the character, so to an extent we are able to empathize with him, and to be honest this is what makes him interesting.

Certainly, these works do reflect the political problems of their time. They mold this iconic classical figure in a manner so that they depict aspects of the social and cultural concerns of their era. For example, in Bianchi’s opera “La Morte di Cesare” written just a year before the French Revolution, the composer wants to put Cesare’s, that is the Emperor’s, murder onto the stage. The baroque is taking responsibility, it too is part of the movement of history, which makes this music more interesting and relevant to us.

OW: On a personal level which track(s) did you most enjoy singing, and why?

RP: Piccinni’s “Tergi le belle lagrime” was a real discovery! I knew Piccinni’s music from some of his comic operas like “Il regno della Luna” or “Le donne vendicate,” but this was my first encounter with his opera seria. His artistry in coloring the text with his music is simply outstanding, he created a new organic interaction between orchestral sounds and words. He almost reinvented Monteverdi’s lessons for theatrical music, but using a neoclassical language, and in which, at times, he even surpasses Mozart’s approach to vocal writing. Also it was something Piccinni achieved some years before the ascendancy of Mozart.

And I loved singing “Scherza infida,” which we included as a bonus track, even if it is sung by Ariodante from Handel’s opera, rather than Giulio Cesare. In this case the chance to interpret this masterpiece for a recording was very appealing and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity!

OW: You spent three years researching and preparing this CD. Do you think that the experience has helped deepen your understanding of how to perform the baroque repertoire, and if so, in what ways?

RP: All the operas are from different periods within the 18th century, and they all have different musical styles. So all the arias I present require a different vocalization, and an understanding of the different musical languages. The aesthetic, and for sure the harmonics, stay the same, but the way the music is written is completely different .

My main focus during the three years of research was on the voice and the technical skills required to sing the music in such a way that it has credibility today, bearing in mind that these arias were performed mainly by castrati, but are now interpreted by countertenors. I believe the countertenor voice should never sound unnatural in any passage of the range, and this means it must be carefully crafted, probably more so than with more traditional registers, if you want to achieve evenness, focus and range. Also we should always respect the requirements of the vocal grammar embedded within the music for every composer we interpret, whether it is early, classical or modern music. This is something I worked on with the help of my teacher Fernando Cordeiro Opa, who has guided, and still guides me today.

OW:  Can you tell us something about the character of Goffredo in “Rinaldo” and what vocal challenges the role presents?

RP: As narrated by Torquato Tasso in “Gerusalemme liberata,” it is clear Goffredo is a good person, an icon of correctness and goodwill, almost a mythical figure, and Handel reproduces the same character in the opera. The music is often brilliant, and always strictly related Goffredo’s emotional journey. Vocally, the part is very low, and it requires a lot of care in terms of projection, and also with its delivery; you need to be able to inject a large variety of colours into a very small range of notes. It is a real challenge!

OW: Last summer, you sang in a production of Rossini’s messe at the Festival Valle d’Itria. It is very rarely performed. What were your thoughts about the work?

RP: It is amazing how Rossini has such a distinctive language. It doesn’t matter what the theme is, even if it is a sacred work, it is easy to recognize him. It was fantastic to see how Rossini, even when he was very young, was already developing the features which characterize his mature musical style. Personally, it was great to sing a work by the young Rossini, because my experience lies in interpreting the masters from the previous generation, such as Piccinni and Jommelli, and I could see the origins of his style, and at the same time further appreciate the quality of his innovations.

OW: What sort of roles particularly appeal to you? Do you enjoy comedy, for example, or is tragedy more to your liking?

RP: Absolutely, opera seria. In particular, I like bitter-sweet complex characters, definitely not one sided-characters. Nero, for example, is one of my favorite roles. I like complexity because it allows you, as an interpreter, to bring to life more aspects of the human condition, and give voice to more emotions, which also makes it more interesting for the audience.

OW: Let’s talk more about your career at large. What made you decide to become a countertenor?

RP: I heard countertenors singing when I was at school, and I thought it was a joke. At the beginning I wanted to sing as a baritone, but it did not work out, so I thought I could try the route of singing countertenor, because I had a deep love for the repertoire, and I also possessed a naturally nice falsetto. Only after did I discover that falsetto is not the point!

OW: Can you describe your voice and how you managed to develop its coloring?

RP: In my case, what sounds very natural is not natural at all, and importantly I do not sing falsetto. I started with the complete development of the baritone voice, and then from this platform I used the head voice to develop the higher range. When people ask me to explain what a countertenor voice is, I tell them it is a tenor who sings in the sovracuto, which is what makes it a very credible voice for the theater because you can hear it, and it is very definite, especially the pitch, the amplitude of the sound, and the possibilities which exist for the range of colors.

OW: Do you become frustrated by the fact that much of the countertenor repertoire is in fact not written for the countertenor, but for castrati?

RP: Yes, I do! It is almost impossible to find parts written for a countertenor from the baroque period. Last year I recorded Gaetano Veneziano’s “St. John’s Passion,” a passion written in 1695 for a priest of the Royal Chapel of Naples, who was most likely a countertenor, and not a castrato. Now that countertenors are back on stage, after having been overshadowed by castrati for the whole of the baroque period, I can confidently say that the countertenor is a voice for the future, and not the past. It is exciting for me that contemporary composers are now writing for countertenors, and it is the reason why I would like to do more contemporary works.

OW: Modern composers, for example John Adams, now write parts for countertenors, does it offer countertenors a way out of being stuck in the world of the castrati, with its inevitable comparisons?

RP: Sure, I am very much into contemporary composers, and I do believe it could give my register a new avenue, different from the Baroque. I find modern classical music very interesting, but it also makes me feel a little anxious. Modernity is the essential engine of any artistic creation and I definitely see the countertenor’s voice as a modern sound. However, I still feel that a gap exists between the engagement of the audience and the writing styles of modern composers, and it is too wide. I am deeply interested in new operas and compositions by contemporary artists, such as Adams, but also Benjamin and Tippett, and in Italy Battistelli, Sciarrino and Bussotti to name a few.

However, my love for tonal melodies and singable tunes is very strong. I suppose it is a case of gravity versus fluctuation, local idioms versus a global musical language, and maybe nostalgia versus revolution. Anyway I am still looking for the composer who can change my ideas on this matter, someone who will let me use the full potential of my voice to fully express his art.

OW: What are your medium and long-term ambitions, in terms of repertoire, roles, recordings or wider projects?

RP: I have so many projects in mind that I will probably only be able to accomplish a few. Certainly, I would like to continue working on my areas of research, and where possible make recordings. In 2019 I will be recording three new solo albums, plus live recordings and broadcasts. Of course, operatic performances will remain my main focus. I am also very happy to announce that my Giulio Cesare will embark on an exciting European tour in 2020, culminating with a performance at London’s famous Wigmore Hall in October.


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