Maniaci escalates to Mozart’s demands

Soprano Michael Maniaci performed with Boston Baroque. Soprano Michael Maniaci performed with Boston Baroque. (Michael Cooper)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / May 10, 2010

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Castrati and their, shall we say, physiologically extreme dedication to the art of singing survived up to the cusp of the modern era (the last known castrato died in 1922), but their last true heyday was in Mozart’s time, under royal and church patronage. Last weekend, male soprano Michael Maniaci joined Boston Baroque for a sampler of Mozart’s efforts on castrati’s behalf.

The bulk of the evening’s vocal selections — all drawn from a new recording by Maniaci and the group — were originally written by the teenage Mozart for the celebrated castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. (Interestingly, some recent research has suggested that Rauzzini was not a castrato, but, like Maniaci, a true male soprano, the evidence being hearsay surrounding the affairs that eventually drove Rauzzini to abandon the continent for England.) Mozart always liked to compose around the specific abilities of individual voices; Rauzzini must have combined sensitive musicality with a flair for sparkling passagework, to judge by arias from the opera “Lucio Silla,’’ not to mention the familiar “Exsultate, jubilate.’’

Maniaci’s voice is a hybrid: His low range doesn’t have the reported tenorial power of the castrato, but his middle and high notes have more point and ring than a modern, falsetto-based countertenor. In this concert, Maniaci shone most in fast, florid material: the anticipatory joy at the end of the aria “Il tenero momento,’’ for example, or the “Alleluia’’ finale of the “Exsultate,’’ percolating with sacred exuberance. Slower music sometimes showed undifferentiated, note-by-note phrasing. But the whole package came together in “Deh per questo istante solo,’’ from the opera “La clemenza di Tito’’ (written for the veteran castrato Domenico Bedini). Maniaci gave superb shape to Mozart’s efficient slow-fast-faster dramatic escalation, vocally solid and musically engrossing.

Music director Martin Pearlman filled out the program with instrumental Mozart. The overture to “Tito’’ was given a performance to match the music: portentious and grand, if a little generic. But the rambunctious overture to “Der Schauspieldirektor’’ and the teeming lavishness of the K. 385 “Haffner’’ symphony proved swashbuckling entertainments, period-instrument transparency buzzing with activity, slashing syncopated accents producing a kind of fine-chiseled swing. The playing reached an absorbing synthesis, both energetically driven and confidently easygoing — rather like, one suspects, Mozart himself.

BOSTON BAROQUE Martin Pearlman, music director; with Michael Maniaci, male soprano

At: Jordan Hall, Saturday