Samuel Mariño Sings Baroque Fiddlybits

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HANDEL: Berenice, Regina d’Egitto: Che sarà quando amanta accarenza. Atalanta: Care selva; Non sarà poco; M’allontano, sdegnose pupille. Arminio: Quella fiamma, ch’il petto. GLUCK: Antigono: Berenice, che fai?; Sinfonia (orch.); Già che morir. La Sofonisba: Tornate serene. La corona: Quel chiaro rio che a pena. Il Tigrane: Care pupille / Samuel Mariño, sop; Handelfestspielorchester; Michael Hofstetter, cond / Orfeo ORF-C998201

Venezuelan born  Samuel Mariño (b. 1993), aptly described by one critic as “a voice from another world,” is technically a countertenor but in reality a male soprano—indeed, a much more realistic-sounding male soprano than Michael Maniacci, who claims to be one but who sounds like a falsetto countertenor. In all of my decades of experience, I have only heard one other who comes close to him, and that was Randall K. Wong, who no longer sings.

But how Mariño achieved this miraculous voice is something of a mystery, caused in part by the artist himself who isn’t telling tales out of vocal school. Suffice it to say that his voice is so extensive, with the full range AND timbre of a female soprano, that in a blindfold test you’d never be able to guess that he was a male. In addition to the Baroque repertoire, to which he is apparently making a living, he also sings the trouser role of Oscar in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera—and, judging from the live audio clip on YouTube, he sings it very well indeed.

My allusion to Wong in the first paragraph shows that I was at one time heavily involved in Baroque vocal music; in fact, if you had known me c. 1985, I’d have told you that this repertoire was superior to all of the verismo operas put together. From a musical standpoint, I still believe that, but further decades of exposure to a much wider variety of musical styles and genres has taught me a valuable lesson, and that is that music of the Baroque period, though very well crafted, was essentially created to dazzle and entertain its listeners. The music has no drama in it because it has almost no connection to the words being sung except to project a “general emotion” or feeling. The singer could just as well be singing “I have a backyard canopy” to this music as anything else. As a matter of fact, the words “I have a backyard canopy” fit the exact rhythm of at least 50% of the musical phrases in many Baroque arias.

But let’s give young Mariño credit for being unique and examine his skills in a bit of depth. As Michael Hofstetter as put it, Mariño, as a male soprano, sings here “for the first time in 250 years things that no man before him was able to sing.” This is his CD debut, and at age 27 Mariño, as I was at age 34, is still gaga over Baroque music. “Gluck and Händel, these are my two masters,” he has said. “They are so important composers to me, and they have made a concert together in London. I’d say it is a wonderful idea to remake this program.” I don’t think that I need to point out, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, that this is pre-“Reform” Gluck, music from the days when he was writing Baroque fiddlybits and not Iphigénie en Tauride.

More importantly, nowhere in Mariño’s singing is the humanity one heard in the performances of Russell Oberlin, the greatest countertenor of all because he used no falsetto whatsoever. He simply had a freak high range that extended nearly an octave above that of a normal tenor, and he used that voice to give human, moving performances of early music ranging from the 15th century to the 18th and, later, to the lieder of Hugo Wolf and others. Yes, he, too, could show off his voice occasionally as Mariño does throughout this recital, particularly one cadenza in a Handel aria that went from the very top to the very bottom of his range, but again, his singing was beautiful not just because his voice was beautiful but because he sang everything with deep feeling. Even a fiddlybits showoff piece like Purcell’s “Hark! The echoing air” had a human touch in it.

Yet one is continually impressed by what Mariño can do, and the one thing he possesses that Oberlin did not is a good trill—and he takes every opportunity to show it off. Even so, I don’t know what he did with Handel’s “Care selve,” but it scarcely sounds like the same aria we’ve known and loved for decades. It is definitely sung at too fast a pace, and sounds to me as if it is pitched up at least a third from where we normally hear it if not higher still, and Mariño keeps tossing in grupetti and trills to make it ornate when it is clearly designed to be sung as a plain, straightforward song.

Interestingly, however, we hear a definite shift in approach when he switches from Handel to Gluck. Though the recitative and aria are not written in the composer’s later style, Mariño’s approach in “Berenice, che fai…Perché, se tanti siete” is much more dramatic and text-centric. He is actually quite moving in this piece, an artist and not just a machine. I admit being quite surprised. In the aria of Demetrio, “Già che morir deggio,” here recorded for the very first time, Mariño sings with tenderness but, since the booklet contains no texts or translations, I cannot tell if his singing is really word-centric or not. I can report, however, that he avoids too much ornamentation except for the occasional trill, which is probably written. The arias from Gluck’s La Sofonisba and Il Tigrane, the latter being titled like the album, “Care pupille,” are also world premiere recordings. The first of these is sung in a straightforward manner with no interpretation that I could discern (but then, I don’t know what the words are), and seems to go on forever (nine minutes!), while the second and third are just rattled off like bravura Handel arias.

The Handelfestspielorchester is as precise and machine-like as Mariño. My greatest wish for this singer is that he develops a feeling for Handel to match his evidently great technical gifts. Right now he has much to offer, but most of it is wrapped up in sheer technique.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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