When Arturo Toscanini, that most exacting of maestros, spoke the words “the voice of an angel,” he had in mind the matchless Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi. These days, wordsmiths are lavishing the same compliment on the Frenchman Philippe Jaroussky, a countertenor currently on tour with the pianist Jérôme Ducros, stopping next at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, in Valencia. Might Toscanini, who died in 1957, ever have encountered the likes of such a beast? Probably not. It’s true that grown men warbling in the highish ranges principally associated with children and women seem to have been with us since the dawn of time. (Frankie Valli would be a modern avatar.) But the ersatz castrati that conservatories are cultivating today are something genuinely new under the sun.
As of the mid–20th century, there were really only two to reckon with: in the U.K., the soothing Alfred Deller, and in the U.S., the spooky Russell Oberlin. Fastidious and elocutionary to a fault, they appealed to sophisticated tastes perhaps only a few bothered to acquire. By now, resistance has ceased to be an option.