musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): "L'aureo serto"

Sergio Foresti, baritone
Abchordis Ensemble
Dir: Andrea Buccarella

rec: Nov 29 - Dec 2, 2021, Riehen (CH), Lastgasthof Riehen
Challenge Classics - CC72924 (ę 2022) (62'30")
Liner-notes: E/IT; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Davide e Bersabea (M'hai sprezzato); Dejanira, Iole, Ercole (overture; Idre, arpie, draghi e leoni; Ho giÓ la mente ingombra - Ombre oscure, rec & aria); Il Gedeone (Sinfonia Pt II; O Figlio, o Gedeone - O beato, fortunato, rec & aria); Il martirio di San Giovanni Nepomuceno (Agitato da pi¨ venti; Cura che di timor ti nutri e cresci - L'aureo serto e il ricco mento, rec & aria); L'Agrippina (Insomma il far l'amore - Viole il musico la donna, rec & aria); L'Angelica (Oh strani agli occhi nostri - Folle che sÓ sperar, rec & aria); Poro (Del rivale all'aita - ╚ ver che all'amo intorno, rec & aria)

Miriam Jorde Hompanera, oboe; Giovanni Battista Graziadio, bassoon; Lathika Vithanage, Lukas Hamberger, Lina Manrique, Katia Viel, Marta RamÝrez GarcÝa-Mina, Jamiang Santi, violin; Corinne Raymond-Jarczyk, viola; Nicola Paoli, cello; Giacomo Albenga, double bass; Simone Vallerotonda, archute, guitar; Arianna Radaelli, harpsichord

Nicola Antonio Porpora does not fail to be mentioned in any book on music history. He played a crucial role as a vocal teacher; among his students were some of the most famous castratos. His compositional oeuvre is still waiting to be rediscovered. In recent years especially some of his cantatas have been recorded, but his large-scale vocal works, such as operas, serenatas and oratorios, are seldom performed and are badly represented on disc. The recording to be reviewed here opens a window on this part of his oeuvre with recitatives and arias from pieces of the three categories just mentioned.

A special feature of this disc is the scoring for a low voice. From the late 17th century until far into the next composers and audiences preferred high voices. The main roles in operas and oratorios were allocated to sopranos and altos, often to be sung by castratos. Some of the operas of the 18th century come without any role for a lower voice. If there were any roles for a tenor or a bass, these were mainly minors characters or - as far as the bass voice is concerned - either a villain or an older wise man. The variety in the character of bass roles comes off here quite well.

The programme opens with two arias and a recitative from the oratorio Il martirio di San Giovanni Nepomuceno. Italian oratorios were often performed during Lent, when the opera was closed and opera singers were available for the performance of oratorios, or at special occasions. The subject matter could be very different: from stories from the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, to historical figures or mythological characters, often venerated as saints. The latter is the case here. John of Nepomuk (c1345-1393) is a historical figure, who was venerated as patron saint in Bohemia. Porpora's oratorio was first performed in 1711, but there have been several versions of this work, some of which cannot be traced. One of the scores is connected to a performance in Brno in 1732. The bass is given the role of Wenceslaus of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, who ordered John to be drowned. The conflict between the two men was connected to the rivalry between the pope in Rome and the one in Avignon. The first aria is a rage aria as one often finds them in operas. It confirms the tendency of oratorios moving in the direction of opera during the first half of the 18th century.

Il Gedeone is a specimen of an oratorio about a biblical subject. The title character is Gideon, one of the Judges ruling the people of Israel after having liberated it from the suppression by the Midianites, as told in the Old Testament book of Judges (ch 6 - 8). It was performed in 1737 at the court in Vienna, and was one of Porporas most successful oratorios. Here the bass is portraying an elderly and wise man, Gideon's father (who, by the way, does hardly play a role in the biblical account). In his aria, with an obbligato bassoon part, he expresses his relief that his son and his army have defeated the Midianites. (The entire oratorio has been recorded by Martin Haselb÷ck; CPO, 1999).

Another biblical story, this time from the second book of Samuel in the Old Testament, is the subject of David e Bersabea. King David impregnates Bathsheba (wrongly called Beersheba in the liner-notes) and then orders his general Joab to place the woman's husband Uriah on the front lines of the battle, where he was likely to die. When Uriah falls victim to the enemy, David takes Bathsheba into his palace. The affair causes the anger of God, as is expressed by his prophet Nathan. This role is allocated to a bass, who vents God's anger in the rage aria 'M'hai sprezzato': "You have despised me. Bitter revenge already awaits you: you will die, and that pitiless sword will not part from your blood." There is a strong contrast between the A and B sections.

Operas were an important part of secular entertainment in Porpora's time. Another popular genre was the serenata, which was usually written as a commission from someone wanting to celebrate a particularly festive occasion, such as a wedding or a birth. Sometimes a serenata was written as part of the celebration of a political event, such as a peace treaty. Dejanira, Iole, Ercole dates from 1711 and was performed in the Ducal Palace of Piedmont. The role of Hercules was scored for a bass, and was sung at this performance by Antonio Manna. Porpora may well have wanted to explore the skills of this singer, as he requires a wide range and the ability to sing wide leaps. These were also the perfect tools for the expression in the two arias included here, especially 'Ombre oscure', in which Hercules shows the first signs of madness.

Another serenata is L'Angelica, called a festa teatrale, which was performed in 1720 to celebrate the birthday of Elizabeth Christina, empress of Austria. The celebration did not take place in Vienna but rather in Naples, which at the time was under Austrian reign. The performance saw the debut of the castrato Farinelli, who was only 15 years of age. The other singers who participated in the performance are also known, and one of them was the bass Gioacchino Corrado, who sang the role of Titiro, father of the shepherdess Licori. This indicates that this serenata, as so many pieces of this kind as well as chamber cantatas, bring us to the world of Arcadia, the ideal of the higher echelons of society at the time. Again, this is the role of an elderly and wise man, who "tries to temper the love frenzy of the young couple consisting of his daughter and Tirsi" (booklet). He does so in the aria performed here.

Until around 1700 operas often included a comical subplot; this was going to disappear later with the emergence of the opera seria. Comical stories became the subject of intermezzi, performed between the acts of such an opera. In Porpora's L'Agrippina we have an example of a late piece that includes comical elements, represented by Planco, a role allocated to a bass. The opera was performed in Naples in 1708 at a special occasion, the festivities on the name day of Charles III of Bourbon, which suggests that it has the traits of a serenata. However, the performance was staged (serenatas were usually not) and the subject matter was more dramatic than in serenatas. Planco delivers ironic comments on love affairs and the fascination for castratos: "The woman wants the castrato when she is in love with singing sol fa mi la."

In 1731 Porpora's opera Poro received its first performance. The role of Timagene was allocated to a bass, and this role was taken by Antonio Montagnana. When he was in London and was to participate in two pasticcios by Handel, he wanted three arias from Poro and Siface (1730) to be included in them. This was a common phenomenon: singers carried so-called 'suitcase' arias with them - their favourites which they wanted to sing in as many operas as possible in order to show their skills. '╚ ver che all'amo intorno' and its preceding recitative from Poro were included in Catone in Utica, where it was allocated to Caesar. It contains then common images connected to the sea, and that is effectively depicted in the music.

All the pieces included here suggest that the works from which they are taken, are well worth being performed complete. It is to be hoped that in the near future we will see more recordings of Porpora's oeuvre in the field of opera, oratorio and serenata. The present disc is a perfect case for Porpora, not only because the pieces are well chosen, but also because they receive excellent performances from Sergio Foresti. He has a nice, but not particularly powerful voice, which is just as well, as this allows him to focus on the text rather than on making a superficial impression. Especially rage arias, of which this disc offers two specimens, are dangerous territory, as singers may be tempted to overdo their performance, being too loud and going into overdrive. Foresti does explore their character very well, but in a well-judged manner, in which the way Porpora has illustrated the music comes off clearly. Foresti also makes a very good impression in the only comical aria, from L'Angelica, where he can show a different side of himself. The Abchordis Ensemble is a perfect partner, and delivers excellent performances of the instrumental parts. Giovanni Battista Graziadio deserves a special mention for his performances of the bassoon parts.

Johan van Veen (ę 2023)

Relevant links:

Sergio Foresti
Abchordis Ensemble

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