Philippe Jaroussky | Australian Brandenburg OrchestraLeft – Philippe Jaroussky. Photo – Simon Fowler.

One would think that the 2013 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix was the main event in Melbourne last week but early music fans will tell you otherwise. It has been early music week at the Melbourne Recital Centre! Last Thursday, viola da gamba virtuoso Jordi Savall played masterfully some of the best pieces written for the instrument, while on Sunday the unique voice of Philippe Jaroussky floated harmoniously bouncing gently off the wooden wave-shaped walls of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, away from engine noises and polluted air to the delight of local and visiting music lovers.

Jaroussky's voice was everything one would have expected to hear live and more. He started with a florid 'tempesta aria' – a vivacious rendition of Handel's Agitato da fiere tempeste from the pasticcio Oreste. This was immediately followed by a slower number from Handel's opera Arianna in Creta which allowed Jaroussky to display his sustained legato singing and his pure, shimmering and rich timbre.

The counter tenor voice is a more unusual operatic voice. It is something like dark chocolate – bitter on the tip of the tongue but satisfying on the palate. Many dismiss countertenors for they do not have the loud high tones that one would think an opera singer should possess but countertenors are rare birds as they practise the art of bel canto singing that exploits tone control and the most expressive part of the voice, the tessitura. This is why they are not particularly endowed with chest notes, although Jaroussky displayed some, and why their high notes could be sometimes shrill.

The program juxtaposes the work of rival composers George Frideric Handel and Nicola Porpora who had competing opera companies in London during the first half of the eighteenth century and also the singing abilities of two rival castrati Carestini and Farinelli engaged to sing for the two composers respectively. Jaroussky's solos are cleverly balanced by instrumental music played with a luscious Baroque sound by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra that was conducted energetically from the harpsichord by the charismatic Paul Dyer. The audience enjoyed the familiar Water Music Suite by Handel and were intrigued by the ingenious violin pirouettes composed by Pietro Antonio Locatelli and performed by Australian Shaun Lee-Chen.

The star of the show was Philippe Jaroussky! He is tall, slim, handsome and young. His face is animated and his body springing with zest. It would be impossible to compare his voice to the vocal prowess of Farinelli. What we know is that Jaroussky is not only able to sing this difficult repertoire but does it with admirable artistry. Jaroussky's advantage is that he has an immensely beautiful and unique tone, which he produces with ease and finesse. What is more, he is a brilliant musician. Having been a professional violin performer in his earlier career, Jaroussky's interpretations boast of original ornamentation that excites the ear and makes the heart palpitate. His phrasing is exquisite, his diction impeccable, his tone colour and dynamics lavish, and his messa di voce or the swelling of the tone to die for.

The secret of Carestini's acting abilities was the style of gesture delivery of which we know from paintings and treatises on rhetoric. Jaroussky is by no means static; his arms follow the contours of the melodies he is singing and his face is very expressive. Training in historically informed gesture would enhance tremendously the visual experience of his audiences because an asymmetrical body posture and classical finger position will make him look noble and graceful, while the emphasis of the gestural stroke will bring to live the rich imagery of the operatic texts he sings, especially for spectators that do not speak Italian. This style of acting was Carestini's secret.

Catch Philippe Jaroussky, Shaun Lee-Chen and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra tonight in Melbourne and on Wed 13 Mar, Fri 15 Mar, Wed 20 Mar, Fri 22 Mar, Sat 23 Mar all at 7pm, and Mon 25 Mar at 5pm at the City Recital Hall Angel Place in Sydney.

Australian Brandenburg Orchestra
Philippe Jaroussky

Conductor Paul Dyer

Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
Dates: Mon 18 March 7pm (previously Sat 16 March 7pm) & Sun 17 March 5pm
Bookings: 9699 3333

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place
Dates:Wed 13 Mar 7pm, Fri 15 Mar 7pm; Wed 20 Mar 7pm, Fri 22 Mar 7pm, Sat 23 Mar 7pm
Matinee: Mon 25 Mar 5pm (previously Sun 24 Mar 5pm)

Written by Daniela Kaleva, University of South Australia