. Interchanging Idioms: Iestyn Davies Is First British Countertenor to Sing at Met

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iestyn Davies Is First British Countertenor to Sing at Met

On November 14, Iestyn Davies – named 2010’s Royal Philharmonic Young Artist of the Year – makes his house and role debuts at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Unulfo in Handel’s Rodelinda. This is an important milestone, not only for the singer but also for the company: the occasion marks the first time in the Met’s 131-year history that a British countertenor will have graced its stage.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Britain is the home of the countertenor. As the New York Times explains, the “countertenor movement was born in England, where historically castrati were a high-priced import and [Baroque] composers like Handel were obliged to be fairly flexible.” In more recent decades, a massive resurgence of interest also originated in Britain, with 20th-century legends like Alfred Deller and James Bowman bringing the male falsetto voice back from church choir obscurity and once more onto the concert platform. In 1988, the American Jeffrey Gall became the first countertenor to sing a major role at the Met, understudying for Marilyn Horne in Handel’s Orlando. Subsequent productions have featured other exponents of the countertenor’s art, yet to date the nation that founded the tradition still remains unrepresented at the Met. How fitting, then, that the balance should be redressed by Davies, who has proved himself not only “today’s most exciting British countertenor” (Observer, UK) but also possessor of “one of the most glorious countertenor voices in the world” (Independent, UK).

The upcoming Rodelinda production is a revival of the 2005 staging with which director Stephen Wadsworth made his own Met debut, one that Variety found “memorable for its simplicity and for the emotional truth that simplicity carried,” and that the New Yorker deemed “essentially perfect.” Star soprano Renée Fleming returns in the title role as the Queen of Lombardy; Stephanie Blythe reprises Eduige; and German countertenor Andreas Scholl undertakes the part of the usurped King Bertarido, with Davies’s Unulfo as his loyal counselor. Conducted – as in 2005 – by Harry Bicket, who “drew uncannily stylish period sounds from the Met orchestra” (New Yorker), the production will be transmitted Live in HD to movie theaters worldwide on December 3.

This landmark Met debut is just one of Davies’s current season highlights. October saw the U.S. release of his most recent recording, Porpora Cantatas, a solo album on the Hyperion label that is already a sensation in Europe, and over the coming months the singer makes two more major U.S. debuts. On December 15, with pianist Kevin Murphy, he sings his first Carnegie Hall recital, presenting the world premiere of folksong arrangements by Nico Muhly alongside works by Britten, Purcell, and Bach. Then, for his first Lyric Opera of Chicago appearance, Davies makes another Handel role debut, portraying Eustanzio in Rinaldo. Directed by Francisco Negrin and co-starring David Daniels, the production opens on February 29.

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