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Nicolo Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): Cantatas

[I] "Dalla Reggia di Flora - Cantatas"
Cristina Grifone, soprano
Mvsica Perdvta
rec: Jan 18 - 20, 2019, Rome, l'Oratorio dei Padri Barnabiti
Brilliant Classics - 96077 (© 2019) (64'23")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cieco Dio foss'io quel fiore; Dalla reggia di Flora; La viola che languiva; Povero fior di Clizia; Questo e il platano frondoso; Su collinetta erbosa; Su la rosa fresca e bella

Renato Criscuolo, cello; Alberto Bagnai, harpsichord

[II] "L'amato nome - Cantatas Opus 1"
Francesca Cassinaria, Emanuela Gallib, soprano; Giuseppina Bridellic, Marina De Lisod, contralto
Stile Galante
Dir: Stefano Aresi
rec: Oct 2016 & August 2017, Roccobianca, Teatro Arena del Sole
Glossa - GCD 923513 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.28'50")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Cantata I: D'amore il primo dardoa; Cantata II: Nel mio sonno almen talorab; Cantata III: Tirsi chiamare a nomea; Cantata IV: Queste che miri, o Nicea; Cantata V: Scrivo in te l'amato nomeb; Cantata VI: Già la notte s'avvicinab; Cantata VII: Veggo la selva e il montec; Cantata VIII: Or che una nube ingratad; Cantata IX: Destatevi, destatevi, oh pastorid; Cantata X: Oh se fosse il mio corec; Cantata XI: Oh dio, che non è verod; Cantata XII: Dal povero mio corc

Agnieszka Oszanca, cello; Andrea Friggi, harpsichord


There seems to be a growing interest in the oeuvre of Nicola Antonio Porpora these days. Rightly so, because he was one of the most celebrated composers of opera in his days, and was especially famous as a singing teacher. Among his pupils were some of the best-known castratos. Porpora also considerably contributed to the genre of the chamber cantata, one of the most popular forms of vocal music in Italy in the first half of the 18th century. In recent years several discs with cantatas have been released. Although the respective track-lists don't mention it, there is a good chance that most cantatas included on the two discs under review here are first recordings.

The seven cantatas on the first disc have two things in common: they are scored for soprano and basso continuo, and they are all about flowers and plants. Renato Criscuolo, in his liner-notes, states: "We do not know exactly why [Porpora] dedicated so many compositions to Flora's Realm, the Reggia di Flora, but it is clear that the floral motif related to love stories and was commonly used in the secular cantatas of the time. Roses, violets, sunflowers, lilies, plane trees and jasmine framed the largely unhappy amorous dalliance of nymphs and shepherds, or unfaithful lovers." In what way that is exactly worked out musically has to remain largely a mystery to those listeners, who are not able to understand Italian. The booklet includes the lyrics, but omits translations. That is a major shortcoming of this interesting production.

One thing these cantatas make abundantly clear: Porpora's skills in writing for the voice. No wonder: as one of the main singing teachers of his time, he had an intimate knowledge of the voice and its possibilities. And even when one does not exactly understand the lyrics, there can be no doubt that he knew what to do with a text. There is plenty of variety in the way he treats the voice, both in the recitatives and the arias. Some words are graphically illustrated, such as "scuote" (shakes) in the recitative that opens the first cantata, Dalla Reggia di Flora, or "povero fior" (poor flower) in the first recitative of Povero fior di Clizia. These cantatas consist of two pairs of recitative and aria, whereas the others comprise two arias embracing a single recitative.

It is not just the music which makes this a disc to enjoy. That is also due to the performance. Often I complain about unstylish ways of singing, in particular an incessant and often wide vibrato. Nothing of that compromises these performances. Cristina Grifone has a lovely voice, which produces a sweet sound, and is very flexible, which is needed in order to deal with the frequent coloratura. I also often notice that the recitatives are sung too strictly in time. Again, that is very different here. The performance of the recitatives is very speech-like and completely natural, in a rhythm which is based on the text rather than the bars. Obviously, the fact that Cristina Grifone is a native Italian speaker is a great advantage.

Her performances of the arias leave little to desire. She does not hold back in the addition of ornaments, and these are mostly well-judged. Only in a couple of instances, she crosses the natural tessitura of a cantata, which is generally undesirable. She ends the dacapo of the second aria of Dalla Reggia di Flora an octave above what is written down. That is something for which I can't see any justification. However, these are very minor issues, considering the quality of the singing and the interpretation.

Renato Criscuolo (cello) and Alberto Bagnai (harpsichord) give quite some impulses from the basso continuo. In particular Criscuolo's playing is dramatic, when there is need for it. The balance is a bit too much in his favour; the harpsichord could have been more clearly audible. As far as the production is concerned: the pauses between the tracks within a single cantata are a bit too long, at the cost of a natural flow between recitatives and arias.

The liner-notes don't indicate when the cantatas were written. Four of them have been preserved in the library of the Conservatoire of San Pietro a Majella in Naples, and one comes from the library of the Brussels Conservatoire. La viola che languiva is kept in the British Library in London, which could indicate that it was written during Porpora's stay in London, although it also may have been written earlier and been in the composer's luggage when he left for England.

In 1733 he travelled to England at the invitation of a group of nobles who wanted to set up an opera company which was to compete with Handel's. In December 1733 the Opera of the Nobility opened its first season with Porpora's Arianna in Naxo. Farinelli also took part in performances of operas by Porpora: his London début was in Polifemo which premiered in 1735. However, the Opera of the Nobility didn't succeed in matching the success of Handel's opera company. In the summer of 1736 Porpora left London. His last composition written there was for the Prince of Wales, the serenata La festa d'Imeneo, to celebrate his wedding.

Porpora had close ties with the Prince of Wales. That may have been due to the connection between his former pupil Farinelli and the Prince. The singer wrote: "The royal prince of these parts (...) does me countless favours of which I should never have dreamt, and from him I expect much of advantage to myself, since we are always together, he playing the cello and I singing." The Prince was an avid player of the cello, and it seems likely that Porpora paid tribute to the Prince's skills by writing remarkably melodic bass parts in the set of cantatas which he dedicated to him, and which were published in London in 1735. This set is the subject of the second production under review here.

The set comprises twelve cantatas: six for soprano and six for alto, all with basso continuo alone. Stefano Aresi, in his liner-notes, states that the basso continuo can only be performed with harpsichord alone or harpsichord with cello. He also mentions that the bass lines are often technically demanding. If these are indeed inspired by the Prince of Wales's skills, "one should applaud that royal gentleman's abilities".

Chamber cantatas usually came in a fixed sequence of recitatives and arias. Nine of the twelve cantatas comprise two arias embracing a recitative, whereas the other cantatas consist of two pairs of recitative and air. They are all about love, and reflect the Arcadian ideals of the higher echelons of society during the baroque era. Aresi emphasizes that chamber cantatas should not be considered 'small opera scenes'. "To the eyes of Porpora's contemporaries, they were a reality in themselves, much closer to the ancient idea of 'musica reservata' than to something staged or in any sense theatrical". However, that does not imply that they are entirely devoid of dramatic elements. In this set the recitative from Nel mio sonno almen talora includes a striking example. In the middle, the text says: "But then, suddenly I hear the foliage of a near bush shaking: I turn, and I see my love rival Fileno (...)". This is rightly emphasized in the way the basso continuo part is played. Cantatas also include passages of text illustration. A specimen is the second recitative of Dal povero mio cor, in which the basso continuo illustrates the "wild storm", the "rough sea" and the "savage waves" which the text refers to.

One thing regarding the performance practice needs to be mentioned. Aresi writes: "[It] was decided to include as constant elements in the singing style some of the most important graces (Manieren) today usually neglected but commonly used by any singer active in Porpora's time, as indicated in many contemporary sources. These extemporary embellishments were commonly used for the performance of the whole piece, from the first to the last note, and not only in the Da capo." This is one of the assets of this recording, and it is an aspect that needs to be given more attention. In the field of ornamentation, there is still some work to do. I have nothing but praise for the way the singers apply this principle in their performances.

Although some of these cantatas have been recorded before (for instance the alto cantatas by Iestyn Davies; this production of the entire set of cannot be appreciated enough, given their historical importance and their quality. Overall the performances do them full justice. There is just one aspect which I am less happy about: the inconsistency with regard to vibrato. Marina de Liso takes the freedom to use quite a lot, whereas Francesca Cassinari almost completely avoids it. Giuseppina Bridelli uses it very sparingly, and so does Emanuela Galli, except in Scrivo in te l'amato nome. I find this hard to understand. It seems that it is accepted as something which is part of someone's way of singing, like its timbre. However, vibrato does not come naturally; it is something singers have learnt. If they can learn it, they can also unlearn it.

It is this aspect which compromises my appreciation of this production. Even so, considering the quality of the cantatas and some aspects of performance practice mentioned above, this set should be investigated by anyone interested in baroque vocal music and the way it should be performed.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Giuseppina Bridelli
Francesca Cassinari
Cristina Grifone
Mvsica Perdvta
Stile Galante

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