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From Our Stage

Countertenor Arias

Described by The Guardian UK as "an impressive Handelian, with a thrilling top register", countertenor Russell Harcourt accompanied by Heidi Jones on harpsichord/chamber organ, performs four arias by Handel, Vivaldi and Porpora.

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PROGRAM NOTES

The invention of opera as an art form is closely linked with the history of the human voice and important technical developments in singing. The variety of the four characters portrayed by countertenor Russell Harcourt in this performance attest to the great range of roles and skills required of any professional opera singer, either in modern times or during the Baroque period itself.

Although the timbre and power of a castrato voice would have been very different to that of a countertenor, Russell Harcourt has an exceptional ability to sing fast passages and also to produce long, lyrical phrases fitting of the often heroic characters found in Baroque operas by Handel, Vivaldi, Porpora and others. Joined by Associate Artist Heidi Jones on the harpsichord and chamber organ, in this specially curated program Russell is first a hero (Rinaldo), then a melancholic lover (Roberto), a man reborn as a river spirit (Acis), and finally a tormented and remorseful murderer (Oreste).

 

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)

VENTI, TURBINI FROM THE OPERA RINALDO, HWV 7

The opera Rinaldo was composed soon after Handel’s arrival in London from Germany in 1710 and marked the start of his ascendancy as one of the greatest composers for voice who ever lived. It was a sensation – brilliant and dramatic music combining with never before seen staging and special effects: “thunder and lightning, illuminations and fireworks … painted dragons spitting wildfire, enchanted chariots drawn by Flanders mares, and real cascades in artificial landscapes”. There were live sheep and oxen on stage and flights of sparrows let loose in the middle of the performance.

The bravura aria Venti, turbini written for the great castrato Nicolini showcases the extraordinary flexibility of the countertenor voice.

Venti turbini prestate
le vostre àle à questo piè.

Turbulent winds,
lend your wings to these prayers.

 

Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)

ESTINGUERE VORREI FROM THE OPERA GRISELDA, RV 718

Although his operas are barely known by present-day audiences, Vivaldi was one of the most successful opera composers in Italy in his own time and claimed to have written over ninety operas. His opera composing career covered almost thirty years, from 1713 to 1741, and he spent long periods travelling throughout Italy staging his own operas.

Griselda, a dramma per musica in three acts, is typical of Vivaldi's later operatic output. It was commissioned by the impresario Michele Grimani for Venice's Ascensiontide Festival 1735, and was given its first performance on 18 May at one of the city's finest theatres, the Teatro San Samuele. The opera’s plot revolves around two couples: Gualtiero and Griselda (the King of Thessaly and a poor shepherdess), and Roberto and Costanza (an Athenian Prince and Gualtiero and Griselda’s daughter, thought to have been killed as a child). Following a rebellion in Thessaly, Costanza is betrothed to Gualtiero who has been forced to divorce Griselda. Here Roberto mourns the loss of his love, believing money and power will bring Costanzo to forget even his name.

Estinguere vorrei
la fiamma ond’io sospiro

ma se quell’occhio miro
ritorno a sospirar.

… I wish I could extinguish
This burning flame inside;
But when I look into those eyes,
I yearn for her again.

 

Nicola Porpora (1686 – 1768)

ALTO GIOVE FROM THE OPERA POLIFEMO

By 1733 Porpora had moved to Venice and was teaching singing to the girls at a different Venetian orphanage when he was hired as music director for the Opera of the Nobility. It was set up to rival Handel’s opera company, but despite having the finest company of singers ever assembled, including Porpora’s star pupil the great castrato Farinelli, the company folded in 1737.

Polifemo premiered in London on 1 February 1735 with Farinelli, who was a sensation. The libretto was based on the classical Greek myth of the giant Polyphemus who fell in love with the water nymph Galatea, who preferred the shepherd Acis. Finding the lovers together, Polyphemus crushed his rival under a rock but Acis was transformed into a river spirit by Zeus (Giove), King of the gods.

Alto Giove è tua grazia e tuo vanto
il gran dono di vita immortale

che il tuo Cenno sovrano mi fà.

Great Jove, it is your mercy and virtue
that gives me this great gift of immortal life,
at your sovereign command.

 

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)

AGITATO DA FIERE TEMPESTE FROM THE PASTICCIO ORESTE, HWV A11

A pasticcio (meaning ‘hash’ in Italian) was an opera consisting of arias by a number of different composers adapted to an existing libretto (text). In a period where operas were composed for specific singers, it was costly for a revival of an opera to be re-composed for new singers, so it became common practice for opera impresarios to allow singers to supply arias that they already knew and which had been composed for them. A house composer provided the only original music – the ensembles and the recitatives, sung speech which supplied the narrative and linked the arias. Because opera seria was composed according to fairly rigid conventions, it was a simple matter to slot an aria written for one opera into the libretto for another. The main drawback, apart from inconsistency in the musical standard of the arias, was the risk of a lack of musical variety or that the arias chosen by the singers would not fit the drama.

Pasticcios were regularly performed throughout Europe from the end of the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth and were particularly common in London. Oreste was a self-pasticcio, as Handel re-used arias from his own earlier operas. The role of Orestes was sung by the great castrato Carestini, Handel’s big drawcard for the 1733-34 season. Carestini was described by the eighteenth-century English music historian Charles Burney as “tall, beautiful and majestic … a very animated and intelligent actor” who had “the most perfect style of singing”.

This aria was originally from Handel’s opera Riccardo Primo Re d’Inghilterra (Richard I King of England). It is a ‘tempest’ aria, a device often used in opera seria to metaphorically convey a character’s emotional turmoil.

Agitato da fiere tempeste
Se il nocchiero rivede sua stella

Tutto lieto e sicuro sen va.

Tossed by fierce storms,
If the helmsman can see his star
He feels that all will be well.

 

Program Notes and Translations: © Lynne Murray & Alan Maddox, 2007 & 2013
Additional Program Notes and Translations: Joanna Butler & Hugh Ronzani, 2020
Image Credit: Keith Saunders, 2020

Discover More

Russell Harcourt

Russell Harcourt is a graduate of both the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (MA with Distinction in Opera Performance).

Since relocating to London, Russell has been an Associate of the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Program at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, studied part-time at the National Opera Studio and has been made an Alumnus of the Britten–Pears Young Artist Program. 

Russell made his operatic début in 2007 as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and his Australian concert début in 2009 as a guest artist at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, Townsville. His Royal Opera House début followed in the Crush Room in the Deloitte Ignite 2010 series.

Russell’s recent engagements include Evanco in Rodrigo for the Gottingen International Handel Festival under Laurence Cummings, Roberto in Vivaldi’s Griselda under Peter WhelanSesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare for Bury Court Opera under Dane Lam, and a return to Australia to perform Megabise in Hasse’s Artaxerxes for Pinchgut Opera under Erin Helyard. 

Further engagements include Countertenor 1 in John Adams’ Gospel According to the other Mary at Bonn Opera, Schnittke Faust Cantata, and recitals with the Lithuanian National Philharmonic, and Bach B minor mass with Florilegium. He also covered Rosencrantz in Brett Dean’s Hamlet for the Glyndebourne Festival & Glyndebourne on Tour and David in Handel’s Saul for Glyndebourne on Tour, he performed the role of Pisandro in Return of Ulysses for Iford Arts Festival under Christian Curnyn, Narciso in Agrippina as well as a concert tour of works by Vivaldi, both for English Touring Opera. He also stepped in to perform the title role in Handel’s Oreste for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden at Wilton's Music Hall. 

For Brisbane Baroque, Russell appeared in the role of Nerone in the Australian Premiere of the Gottingen International Handel Festival’s production of Agrippina (for which he received a Helpmann Award nomination as Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in opera) and in concert in The Art of the Counter Tenor. He has also appeared as soloist in Vanguard with the Australian Ballet, in Messiah under Richard Gill with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in Wellington, as well as performing Corrado Griselda and Andronicus Bajazet with Pinchgut Opera. 

Russell currently studies with Yvonne Kenny. 

Biography: Russell Harcourt, 2020
Photo credit: Robert Catto

Heidi Jones

Heidi Jones is a graduate of the Canberra School of Music where she studied piano and piano accompaniment with Susanne Powell. During her degree, she won both the Margaret Smiles Accompaniment competition and the Canberra School of Music Chamber Music competition, and discovered her true passion lay in music-making with others.

Following her undergraduate degree, Heidi moved to London where she continued her studies in piano accompaniment at the Royal Academy of Music with Michael Dussek. She played in accompaniment masterclasses for Martin Issep and Julius Drake, and vocal masterclasses with Robert Tear and Therese Cahill. Heidi was awarded the London Lord Mayor’s 800th Anniversary Trust award and a bursary from the Royal Academy of Music. She graduated with Distinction from the Royal Academy of Music and was also awarded a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. Whilst in Europe, Heidi was involved in a wide variety of performances including concerts at the Royal Academy, Australian Embassy, inner-London churches and at Rencontre Musicale en Eygalières in Provence, France.

Since returning to Australia, Heidi has performed with the Omega Ensemble and Sydney Philharmonia Orchestra and has given live broadcasts on ABC Classic FM and 2MBS FM. In early 2006, Heidi spent a month at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon as part of their Artists-in-Residence program. Inspired by her time there with colleague James Beck, the pair created Flametree Productions to produce art music and cultural events that project uniquely Australian qualities. Their first Flametree Festival at Bundanon was voted ‘Best Festival/Event 2006’ in the ABC's Limelight Magazine’s annual awards. Additional performances were added in 2007 at the Linnaeus Estate in Byron Bay and the Michael Reid Gallery in Murrurundi. Flametree returned to the Linnaeus Estate in April 2008 for a series of sold-out concerts with Katie Noonan and her band Elixir.

Heidi has been a member of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra since 2006, as a repetiteur with the Brandenburg Choir and most commonly as Chamber Organist in concerts featuring the choir and in Noël! Noël! each Christmas. She has performed as a soloist with the orchestra in the Sinfonia from Cantata 29, Wir danken dir, Gott. Heidi is proud to count many of her Brandenburg colleagues as friends and never takes for granted the feeling of walking on stage with Paul and his orchestra.

With a passion for encouraging the next generation of musicians, Heidi works as Accompanist & Performance Coach at SCEGGS Darlinghurst. She has a special interest in the relationship between mindfulness and performance and how these techniques can be applied to performance and performance preparation.

Heidi is grateful for the support of Dr Jeanne-Claude Strong who has loaned her a beautiful Yamaha concert grand piano.

Biography: Heidi Jones, 2020
Photo credit: Toby Burrows, 2016

Countertenor

In the sixteenth century the term ‘countertenor’ referred to the vocal part lying above the tenor line in choral or part singing. Now it is used more generally to describe a man singing in his falsetto range, which lies above his usual chest voice and corresponds in pitch to the female voice. Falsetto is a normal function of the male larynx and all men are capable of singing falsetto. The terms ‘male alto’ and ‘male soprano’ simply indicate the range of the particular countertenor voice. Because of the disposition of the vocal folds in the larynx while in falsetto mode, skilful countertenors can develop an exceptional ability to sing fast passages, more so than other voice types, and countertenors are usually cast in the castrato roles in modern performances of Baroque operas that require rapid singing and for reasons of dramatic verisimilitude. The timbre and power of a castrato voice would have been very different to that of a countertenor, however.

Baroque FAQ: © Lynne Murray & Alan Maddox, 2007

Opera Seria

Italian opera seria (serious opera) was the prevailing opera genre in the early eighteenth century and conformed to a set of conventions relating to plot, libretto and structure. The main characters were always noble and the plots dealt with serious subjects usually from classical mythology or ancient history.

An opera seria consisted of a series of arias linked by recitative (sung speech) which told the story and propelled the action. In the arias, the characters expressed their reaction to what had just taken place, or on what they had been told had just taken place, as not much actually happened on stage. The arias were nearly always da capo, in three parts with the first part repeated after a contrasting middle section. The singer was expected to show his or her virtuosity and artistry by adding extra ornamentation on the repeat.

Baroque FAQ: © Lynne Murray, 2013

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