Emőke Baráth interview: ‘I had no vision for anything in my future but music’ Follow us

When a successful lyric soprano discovers a thrilling lower register in her voice, what choice does she have but to exploit it? For her new recording, ‘Dualità’, Emőke Baráth is following in the footsteps of legends such as mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and exploring the ‘trouser roles’ written for Handel’s favourite female singers Margherita Durastante and Margherita Chimenti. But with a range stretching to a high D, Baráth is equally at ease in the brilliant roles Handel wrote for sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Anna Maria Strada del Pò. Assuming the role of heroes as well as heroines, Baráth is able to examine what she calls the ‘duality of the female soul’, something that, in the 18th century, women who didn’t appear on the theatrical stage didn’t have much chance to enjoy. Says Baráth, ‘Thanks to this duality, in which sensitivity unites with power, everyday heroines succeeded in a world where the odds were stacked against them.’

This new Erato album of arias from nine Handel operas includes both well-known pieces, such as ‘Da tempeste’ from Giulio Cesare, and rarities such as Adelaide’s ‘Scherza in mar la navicella’ from the little-known Lotario. The male characters she embodies are Tauride, Achille, Adolfo and the brilliant Radamisto; the female roles include two sorceresses, Melissa and Alcina, and three fiery queens: Partenope, Cleopatra and Adelaide.

Baráth developed the idea partly because it made a satisfying concept for an album, but also because she was discovering new regions of her own voice. ‘I’m 36 and I’m aware that my voice is changing,’ she says on screen from her Budapest apartment. Busy as ever, she’s fitting interviews in between rehearsals for her upcoming concert tour. ‘I think of myself as a lyric soprano, but my lower range was always very solid. I’ve been working to homogenise my lower and upper ranges and I realise I feel good in the lower parts, which are often male characters, and in the higher female roles like Cleopatra, and also Adelaide – which is a wonderful role but not often performed.’ She sought the help of her longtime colleague and friend, the countertenor and conductor Philippe Jaroussky (‘Dualità’ marks his recording debut as a conductor), to choose the arias that would work together. ‘We tried to make a selection of different roles to show off the many colours and characteristics in my voice.’ At the heart of the album sits Radamisto’s ‘Ombra cara’, with Baráth revealing her burnished lower register in every lingering crotchet. The first word, ‘Ombra’, sounds positively androgynous – is it a woman or countertenor singing? – until the voice climbs into a soprano timbre in the second phrase. The aria is unaffected, simple on the surface, but expertly phrased and paced with the support of Jaroussky’s Ensemble Artaserse, who weave slow chromatic lines around the voice.

‘Philippe was fantastic,’ says Baráth. ‘He was not just the conductor but also the musical advisor. He has huge experience in solo recordings, whereas this was only my third. I still need to learn how to pace myself, to keep my energy on top over the whole recording period and not shoot all my bullets at the beginning. He was really supportive, taking care of me when he saw I had reached my limit or I was starting to push, suggesting we took a break.’

Jaroussky, one of the world’s starriest countertenors, already recorded on the Erato label and then Baráth joined him, eventually signing an exclusive contract in 2018. They worked together on several albums – an Orpheus-themed collection of Monteverdi, Sartorio and Rossi, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Partenope – before Baráth made her first solo album for the label, ‘Voglio cantar’, in 2019 (she had previously recorded a solo recital of Debussy songs for Hungaraton). It’s a programme of music by the Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi and her contemporaries. Apparently it’s a coincidence that her two solo Erato albums are based around women. ‘It’s not that I chose these topics; they actually chose me! Today it’s important to choose a recording project based on the taste of the audience – how we can speak to them easily.’ The Strozzi album is full of delightful treats, perhaps best savoured one at a time rather than guzzled all in one go. Baráth has given herself a broader canvas on ‘Dualità’ and Handel’s full-blooded characters provide plenty of drama. The segue from the sorceress Melissa’s caressing ‘Ah! spietato’ to young Achille, in full battle mode, tossing out the coloratura ‘Ai Greci’, including a high D (in Baroque pitch) with insouciance, is one of the many pleasures of this recording.

Baráth has been reading widely about the lives of sopranos in Handel’s day. How do they compare with the life of a 21st-century soprano? ‘I’m sure they would have been the same in many ways – capricious, hysterical, sometimes difficult and very passionate! They must also have had a fantastic singing technique. But I found out an interesting fact when I was reading about this period. Male singers who dressed as women were usually in comic roles; they were not serious figures. But women singing men, like Radamisto or Sesto, were strong, important characters. Handel could have written those for a castrato, but he didn’t because he knew those singers could perform the roles in a credible way.’ She cites Anna Maria Strada del Pò, the singer moulded by Handel into the perfect vehicle for his Alcina, and Francesca Cuzzoni, for whom he wrote the demanding part of Cleopatra – ‘a kind of 18th-century bel canto role’.

For a decade, Baráth has been the soprano of choice for Europe’s leading period-instrument ensembles, and her calendar has been crowded: in one year she notched up 67 stage appearances. ‘It was too much. That’s more than one a week!’ But she says there have been many obstacles on the way to such success. She admits that she benefited tremendously from Hungary’s excellent music education provision at her musical primary school in Gödöllő, where she learnt piano, cello and flute and sang in choirs and folk groups. ‘I was lucky to have the best teachers – my first piano teacher put me on the path with her enthusiasm and great teaching.’ But from the very beginning her parents discouraged her from considering a career in music; they wanted their daughter to go into a stable, well-paid job. Baráth, however, had other ideas: ‘I had no vision for anything in my future but music.’ Sent to an academic high school, after two miserable years she defied her parents and transferred to a musical secondary school, where she focused on harp and vocal studies. She won a place to the Franz Liszt Academy, alma mater of András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis. But even there she had trouble convincing some of her teachers that she had what it took to be a soloist. ‘I chose the oratorio and chamber music course because my voice was quite small and my technique was not ready for singing opera.’ It introduced her to the vast world of song, Lieder and chamber music. ‘I learnt hundreds of songs by Debussy, Strauss, Liszt and Wagner, and I still love song recitals’ – hence her decision to record Debussy for Hungaroton, even though nowadays she’s associated almost exclusively with music of the 17th and 18th century. She continues to play a part in Hungarian musical life, singing with Hungarian State Opera and giving recitals at the Müpa Budapest. ‘I love this city and I don’t want to be an artist who abandons my home country, because I got so much from here.’

Emőke Baráth interview: ‘I had no vision for anything in my future but music’ Follow us

In her early twenties she studied at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence through the Erasmus scheme: ‘I lived in a tiny, freezing-cold room and I never had enough money, but I was overwhelmed by the beauty and the art.’ With extraordinary determination she entered herself into singing competitions around Europe, travelling on overnight buses and coming away with prizes. In 2011 she won first prize at the Second International Singing Competition for Baroque Opera in Innsbruck and was approached about a recording project by Alan Curtis, the founder of Il barocco complesso. ‘I was 25, I had no idea about anything and when I arrived to record Giulio Cesare I had to jump in for a very famous singer who had cancelled. I’d never recorded anything before and I was singing the role of Sesto with Karina Gauvin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux in the cast. I was really thrown in at the deep end! I cried each day, I was tired, some of the arias were too difficult, but I still did it. My voice was completely different then, but it fitted the role well because Sesto was meant to be a boy.’

Masterclasses and performances at the Verbier Festival Academy followed that same year, where she won the Grand Prix, and then in 2013 she was cast as the title-role in Cavalli’s Elena at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. ‘It was a beautiful summer, we were all young singers and it was a great help to my career,’ she recalls. Her debut at Glyndebourne in 2017 was in the title-role of another Cavalli opera, the little-known Hipermestra, conducted by William Christie and directed by Graham Vick, who died last year. ‘The music of this opera is not Cavalli’s best, but it was beautifully done, if I may say unmodestly!’ laughs Baráth. She remembers what an inspiration Vick was. ‘He was clear, precise, always on time. He was respectful, funny and he created a real drama on the stage. I had a scene where I had to dig my own grave while singing and every time I almost cried because [the emotion] was so heavy. I imagine it must have been heavy for the audience too. I was less experienced then, I got too emotionally involved and that’s not good for the singing.’

Baráth has a particular soft spot for the Baroque ensembles she has worked with over the years, especially the Italians. ‘Ottavio Dantone is just a fantastic, amazing person and musician. Watch Accademia Bizantina in concert and you can see there is such tension between them, and how well they move together. And Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante … These directors love their musicians, they trust them and that’s so important to work as a team, without hierarchy. [Arcangelo’s] Jonathan Cohen, too, he lives for the music. I’ve done Messiah with him and we are also due to perform Pergolesi’s Stabat mater.’

Stabat mater has been something of a signature work for Baráth since 2014 when a performance with Philippe Jaroussky at the Château de Fontainebleau, conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann, was broadcast and posted on YouTube. ‘It’s had over three million views, which is crazy for a classical music video of a sacred piece. I still get messages from people saying how much it has helped them through a difficult period.’ It’s both healing and breathtakingly beautiful – these two matched voices intertwining are sensuous and deeply spiritual. ‘The great thing is that when Philippe and I sing together, we don’t really have to talk about details because we think in the same way. In a piece like Stabat mater, the two singers have to be together so precisely that you need to really connect – to put aside the ego, to share oneself with the other singers. And then we are able to create something together.’

Looking back over the pandemic, Baráth thinks she’s been luckier than some. ‘I had only three or four months of break and I haven’t stopped since then. I sing almost everywhere and countries such as Spain had concerts throughout. I know my British colleagues have had a hard time.’ She was, however, bitterly disappointed to miss out on her debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper. ‘It was something I was longing for, and it would have opened doors for me. But everyone was in the same boat, which made it a bit easier.’ In some ways she was glad to have had an enforced rest. ‘I had some health issues so it was a kind of benediction to be at home and to work on myself physically and mentally. My voice changed a lot in a very short time and I think it’s because I am more connected with myself. It’s a more spiritual approach, to concentrate on what is good in us and not the faults. With my voice, I’ve accepted myself with all my shortcomings and since that time I think I’ve been improving much faster.’

She is exploring what this means for future roles, including moving out of Baroque repertoire. ‘That’s the plan; now I’m working more on Mozart roles, like Sifare, which I’ll sing in the Malmö and Danish National Opera production of Mitridate, re di Ponto, in April. Then will come Susanna, Pamina, Ilia and on to Donna Anna.’ Baráth remembers singing Fiordiligi in a masterclass in Verbier in 2011 and earmarking it for the future. ‘I thought, I need to spend 10 years to be ready for it. I haven’t sung it yet but I will sing Dorabella in a concert tour next year, which shows the character of my voice.’

The week after we speak, she is giving a recital of Mozart concert arias and Grieg songs – a far cry from the glittering coloratura of Cleopatra. ‘I try to find the quality, the core of my voice, regardless of whether I’m singing Baroque coloratura or Grieg songs. It’s rather about the stylistic tools I use. Of course in a Grieg song I can do a portamento if I want, but not in a Baroque aria!’ At the heart of her performance is an emotional honesty that comes through most strongly in her lower register, where the rich notes are surrounded by a halo of warmth. ‘Yes, people often describe it as a warm tone and I’m happy because it’s important to be able to touch people,’ says Baráth. And she does. With ‘Dualità’, her emotional appeal, twinned with Handel’s melodic genius, promises to bring light into the winter drear.

This article originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

Reviews Database: read the review of ‘Dualità’