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Flying high For a long time, the Argentine singer Franco Fagioli did not know what a treasure he had in his voice. Then he made his breakthrough as a countertenor. The fixed star of his repertoire: Georg Friedrich Händel. In the festival premiere of Agrippina he sings Nerone. Text by Regine Müller The musical world has long become accustomed to virtuoso countertenors, altos and sopranos, though they were once considered simply exotic. Advancements in vocal technique have catapulted men with high voices out of the niche of the early music purists with the narrow-chested sound and onto the big stages. Still, when you hear Franco Fagioli for the first time, you are overwhelmed. His is a voice of glistening, almost shocking presence and imposing penetrative power, with the range of a gifted mezzo-soprano, a triumphal, robust depth and a dark, pleasantly guttural middle register. Franco Fagioli is entirely unfamiliar with the often restrained vocalization of many of his colleagues. He approaches high notes with fearless verve; registers are connected in natural curves; breakneck coloraturas dazzle, even in the prestissimo of Neapolitan baroque operas, neatly aligned as on a string of pearls. What’s more, he delivers all this with musical ardor, stylistic elegance, clarity of diction and natural – never mannered – expression. How does he do it? “Natural voice and technique” is the succinct answer. Franco Fagioli was not aware of his gift of song for a long time. In his Argentinian hometown of San Miguel de Tucumán, he sang soprano in the children’s choir. At the age of eleven, he played the First Boy in The Magic Flute. “That has been stored deep inside me,” he says. Franco Fagioli studied piano, but never stopped singing. The change of voice passed him by almost without a trace. “I kept playing with the high notes and, one day, I said to myself: That sounds good and feels good too. But what is it?” Argentina was far removed from the Early Music traditions of Europe. Franco Fagioli discovered his voice as a serious instrument more by chance, when he rehearsed Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater as a répétiteur with a choir and acquired a recording featuring Emma Kirkby as soprano and James Bowman performing the alto part. Franco Fagioli was

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stunned: “That’s a man! And he sings like me!” From that point on, there would be no stopping him. He took vocal studies in his hometown, before relocating to Buenos Aires to study at the Opera Academy of the Teatro Colón. What followed was a meteoric ascent. Franco Fagioli has ample experience with the operas of Georg Friedrich Händel. He also appeared in Agrippina in 2004 in Buenos Aires, then in the role of Ottone. “He was a typical suffering hero,” says the singer, “but Nerone is a real bad boy. It’s exciting to develop this new role.” Franco Fagioli had already encountered the figure of Nerone in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. A great opportunity to develop the character in song – after all, he is the continuation of Nerone in Agrippina, so to speak. “But here he’s still a teenager on the threshold to adulthood and under the strong influence of his mother. In Monteverdi, we have Nerone, the ruler, the murderer, a mature character, like the historical figure.” What excites Franco Fagioli about Agrippina is the opportunity to develop a bolder personality, which Händel nevertheless sketched with such nuance. As Franco Fagioli puts it, Nerone has a lot of youthful desires. He is full of passion and energy, a figure who is surprised by his own life every day. By the end of the opera, he has transformed. Yet, Händel foreshadows what will later become of this teenager: “In his first arias, the melodies are strikingly chromatic and by no means as predictable as those of the other figures. His serpentine personality is very well developed in the music.” (…) Händel is the fixed star of Franco Fagioli’s repertoire, which he orbits with sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller detours, mainly for technical reasons. “Händel wrote for voices in a particularly organic way, very human and pragmatic,” says Franco Fagioli. “He knew the Neapolitan school of castrati with Porpora, Vinci and Leo. He was clever and he absorbed everything.” Händel, however, was able to turn what he had learned into more accessible music. Not only for the singers, but for the audience, as well. (…) When the first countertenors appeared as soloists in the 1950s, they were accepted with a mixture of estrangement and astonishment but remained the exotic exception for a long time. Today, countless colleagues of Franco Fagioli are competing for more and more roles on the opera and concert stages. The high male voice has become a normality, something Franco Fagioli expressly welcomes: “It is the magic of song itself that fascinates.” (…)

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