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CD reviews

Opera Arias

[I] "A Royal Trio"
Lawrence Zazzo, alto
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates
rec: Jan 2014, London, St John's Smith Square
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807590 (© 2014) (78'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Attilio ARIOSTI (1666-1729): Coriolano (1723) (Spirate, o iniqui marmi; Voi d'un figlio tanto misero); Il naufragio vicino (1724) (Freme l'onda); Vespasiano (1724) (overture); Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Crispo (1721) (Così stanco Pellegrino; Torrente che scende); Griselda (1722) (Per la gloria d'adorarvi); Muzio Scevola, act II (1721) (Tigre piagata); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Admeto (HWV 22) (1727) (sinfonia [I,9]; introduzione. ballo di larve; Orride larve; Chiudetevi miei lumi; sinfonia [II,1]); Flavio, Re di Longobardi (HWV 16) (1723) (Rompo i lacci); Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) (1724) (Va tacito); Ottone (HWV 15) (1723) (Io son tradito; Tanti affanni); Rodelinda (HWV 19) (1725) (Vivi, tiranno)

[II] "Handel & Porpora"
Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano
Clavecin en concert
Dir: Luc Beauséjour
rec: June 2013, Québec, Église de St-Benoît-de-Mirabel
Analekta - AN 2 8764 (© 2014) (55'47")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Alcina (HWV 34) (1735) (Stà nell'Ircana pietrosa tana); Ariodante (HWV 33) (Scherza infida; Dopo notte, atra e funesta); Serse (HWV 40) (1738) (Se bramate d'amar; Frondi tenere - Ombra mai fu); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Festa d'Imeneo (1738) (Vaghi amori); Polifemo (1735) (Alto giove; Dolci freschi aurette)

[III] Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): "Il maestro"
Franco Fagioli, alto
Academia Montis Regalis
Dir: Alessandro de Marchi
rec: June 2013, Mondovì, Academia Montis Regalis (Sala di Santa Croce)
Naïve - V5369 (© 2014) (80'37")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Carlo il Calvo, opera (1738) (Spesso di nubi cinto); Didone abbandonata, opera (1725) (Già si desta la tempesta); Ezio, opera (1728) (Se tu la reggi al volo); Il ritiro, cantata (A voi ritorno campagne amene); Il verbo in carne, oratorio (1748) (Distillatevi o cieli); Meride e Selinunte, opera (1727) (Torbido intorno al core; Con alma intrepida); Polifemo, opera (1735) (Alto giove); Semiramide riconosciuta, opera (1729) (Vorrei spiegar l'affanno; Il pastor se torna aprile); Vulcano, Vulcano, cantata (Non lasciar chi t'ama tanto)

[IV] "Rival Queens"
Simone Kermes, sopranoa; Vivica Genaux, mezzo-sopranob
Cappella Gabetta
Dir: Andrés Gabetta
rec: Jan 16 - 19, 2014, Krün, Schloss Elmau
Sony - 88843023662 (© 2014) (80'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Giuseppe ARENA (1713-1784): La clemenza di Tito (1739) (Come potesti, oh Dio!)a; Attilio ARIOSTI (1666-1729): Lucio Vero, imperator di Roma (1727) (Vorreste, o mie pupille)b; Giovanni BONONCINI (1670-1747): Astianatte (1727) (Spera che questo corb; Svenalo, traditor!a); Geminiano GIACOMELLI (1692-1740): Scipione in Cartagine nuova (1730) (Villanel la nube estiva)a; Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Artaserse (1730) (Va' tra le selve ircanea; Tu vuoi ch'io viva, o cara, duetab); Cleofide (1731) (Se mai più saro geloso, duet)ab; Issipile (1732) (Impallidisce in campo)b; Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Ciro riconosciuto (1739) (Benché l'augel s'asconda)a; Antonio POLLAROLO (1676-1746): Lucio Papirio dittatore (1720) (Padre amoroso)b; Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Adelaide (1723) (Nobil onda)a; Arianna in Naxo (1733) (In amoroso petto, duet)ab; Domenico Natale SARRO (1679-1744): Lucio Vero (1722) (Al valor di borea armato)b; Leonardo VINCI (c1690-1730): Ifigenia in Tauride (1725) (L'onda chiara, che dal fronte)b

Discs with arias from baroque operas appear with clock-like regularity. Some may be produced in order to give the singer an opportunity to shine. Others - the more interesting ones - aim at shedding light on a specific part of the repertoire which is not that well-known. From that angle the four discs reviewed here are quite interesting. In three of them rivalry plays a major role.

The first brings together three composers who worked at the same time in London: Handel, Bononcini and Ariosti. Handel had been appointed as Master of the Orchester of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719. The opera opened the next year and in the first seasons operas by several composers were performed, among them Giovanni Bononcini. Between 1706 and 1709 his opera Il trionfo di Camilla had been performed three times in London, and his music was very popular. Several attempts had been made to bring him to London, and these finally succeeded in 1720. Bononcini's operas were more successful than Handel's but David Vickers, in his liner-notes, calls the "supposed bitter rivalry between the composers" exaggerated. If they were on unfriendly terms it would hardly have been possible to make them contribute to one opera, Muzio Scevola, which was premiered in 1721. The first act was written by Filippo Amadei, the theatre orchestra's cellist, the second by Bonincini and the third by Handel.

Bononcini's success didn't last long. At the end of the season 1724/25 he withdrew from opera and entered the service of the Duchess of Marlborough. In the meantime another composer of Italian origin had made a name for himself at the London operatic scene: Attilio Ariosti. In 1716 he had arrived in England and the next year his opera Tito Manlio had been performed. As it was received well, the directors of the Royal Academy commissioned him to compose another opera which was performed in 1723: Coriolano. It was followed by more, until 1728, but in the last three years of his operatic career his popularity was already on the wane.

"A Royal Trio" includes arias from operas by these three composers. Obviously those by Bonincini and Ariosti are the most interesting part of Lawrence Zazzo's disc. They are not unknown quantities, but Ariosti is probably best-known for his viola d'amore sonatas and his cantatas. Bononcini's activities in the field of opera are welll-known but hardly documented on disc. They should have taken a larger part of the programme: most arias are from Handel operas, and many are quite well-known, such as 'Va tacito' from Giulio Cesare and 'Vivi tiranno' from Rodelinda. The performances are rather disappointing; I have heard better interpretations. Here they are rather tame, not only vocally but also as far as the orchestral part is concerned. Among the best pieces of this disc are the arias from Ariosti's Coriolano which seems worth a complete recording. This disc suggests that we could do with fewer recordings of - mostly the same - operas by Handel and turn our attention to the hardly-known operas by composers who have remained in his shadow. Such recordings need to be better than what we get here. The overall interpretations by Zazzo and La Nuova Musica are less than impressive; Zazzo's incessant vibrato is a nuisance.

The next disc documents a rivalry which was more serious and more suitable to be characterised as a "bitter rivalry". The Royal Academy had to deal with the Opera of the Nobility which was founded in 1733. Its specific aim was to break Handel's dominance in the realm of opera, but the rift had also a political background. The Italian composer Nicola Antonio Porpora was invited to become its musical director. He was a representative of Neapolitan opera, considered more 'modern'. He was also a famous singing teacher: some of the star castratos were among his pupils, such as Senesino, Caffarelli and Farinelli. The rivalry between the two companies, represented by their respective leading composers, developed that same year, with Handel performing some pasticcios and his operas Ottone and Arianna in Creta. The latter was Handel's reply to Porpora's opera Arianna in Naxo, premiered on 29 December. The next season saw a continuation of the rivalry with Handel producing Ariodante and Alcina and Porpora performing his Polifemo, in which Farinelli took part. In the end the rivalry played a crucial role in the demise of Italian opera in London. In 1737 the Opera of the Nobility went bankrupt and closed its doors; Handel also had lost a considerable sum of money. He composed only a few operas since then, among them one of his most famous, Serse, but in the 1740s he turned his attention completely to the composition of oratorios.

It is a little odd that Julie Boulianne and Clavecin en Concert include two arias from this opera as it was first performed in 1738 when the rivalry between the two opera companies had already come to an end and Porpora had returned to Italy. The performance of arias from Ariodante and Alcina makes more sense. That said, the Handel arias all belong to his best-known. Arias from Ottone and Arianna in Creta would have been a better choice as these operas - and especially the latter - are far less often performed and recorded. The most interesting part of this disc are the arias from Porporas Polifemo, especially as there is - as far as I know - no complete recording. That is regrettable as the arias performed here are beautiful and suggest that the opera is well worth being performed and recorded. Julie Boulianne has considerable dramatic skills and has no problems with the often considerable technical challenges of the arias. Everything sounds very natural. However, there are a couple of shortcomings. She is mostly modest in her application of ornamentation and avoids the rewriting of complete lines in the dacapos, but in 'Dolci fresche aurette' from Porporas Polifemo she includes a cadenza which is far too long. To my knowledge it was a general rule that a singer should be able to sing a cadenza in the same breath, but that is impossible here. The fact that she also sings with too much vibrato can hardly come as a surprise these days - sadly.

Porpora may be one of the famous names in music history, he is still not that well represented on disc. That makes any new recording of especially his vocal music welcome. It is regrettable that we don't have any account of his teaching methods nor of his ideas on singing. We have to rely on treatises by others who sometimes refer to Porpora. There is also little pedagogical material which could give us some insight into his methods. The main source of knowledge is probably his music, as Franco Fagioli states in his notes to his recording of arias: "When I sing his music I enjoy feeling close to his classroom, to his generous teaching (...)". He has put together an interesting and varied programme of arias, mostly from operas, but also from an oratorio and two cantatas. Like I wrote Porpora was a representative of the Neapolitan school whose galant idiom disseminated quickly across Europe from around 1730 onwards. Taking this into account one is surprised to hear an aria such as 'A voi ritorno campagne amene' from the cantata Il ritiro. The string accompaniment is written in a rather old-fashioned style, dominated by counterpoint. This can be explained by the fact that this piece was written for the Habsburg court in Vienna. It is well documented that the musical taste of the Habsburg emperors was rather conservative. This is one of the nicest pieces of this disc.

Like Julie Boulianne Fagioli sings arias from Polifemo; especially 'Alto giove' - which they sing both - is a fine example of Porpora's art. This is also one of the better parts of this disc as far as the performance is concerned. Here Fagioli's incessant and often wide vibrato is not too prominent. In the arias in fast tempo it is simply unbearable and is sometimes outright ridiculous. I can't see any reason why a singer should use vibrato on every single note. It is stylistically untenable and basically unmusical. If it isn't on purpose, then we have to consider it a technical deficiency. Fagioli seems to be admired world-wide, but I can't figure out why. In 'Spesso di nubi cinto' from Carlo il Calvo he adds a cadenza of 65 seconds - not even Julie Boulianne goes that far. This is caricatural. It is known that the castratos had a brilliant breath technique. Maybe they could have sung such a long cadenza without taking a breath, but Fagioli can't. It is a big shame that a recording with such an interesting programme is completely spoiled by such aberrations.

With the last disc we return to the beginning of this review. It documents the rivalry between two opera stars of the 1720s and 30s, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. The former made her London debut in Handel's Ottone (1723), Bordoni in his Alessandro in 1726. The next year the rivalry between the two came into the open on the stage, during a performance of Porpora's Astianatte. They would never share the stage again. Opera aficionados discussed the rivalry and the virtues and shortcomings of the two stars at length, but in his liner-notes Giovanni Andrea Sechi points out that the differences between them were rather exaggerated. One source of their rivalry was that their roles were often interchangeable; some arias were even sung by both. It was just a matter of competition: Cuzzoni was unrivalled in London until Bordoni made her appearance. Opera stars were notorious for their vanity and many composers - and that certainly goes for someone like Handel - had difficulties dealing with these ego trippers.

We mostly don't know exactly which arias singers like these women sang. Any musical documentation of this rivalry has to be largely speculative. The programme which has been recorded by Simone Kermes and Vivica Genaux comprises arias from operas which were written during the heydays of Cuzzoni and Bordoni. Obviously the duets were never sung together by the two 'rival queens'. The various opera schools, such as the Venetian and the Neapolitan, are represented. The programme includes many unknown arias: no fewer than 12 of the 15 are world premiere recordings. Several composers are also largely unknown, especially Giuseppe Arena and Antonio Pollarolo. The fact that Cuzzoni was a soprano and Bordoni a mezzo seems to have been hardly a factor in their time. Here the difference between the two singers - Kermes representing Cuzzoni and Genaux embodying Bordoni - is clearly noticeable. The character of the various arias comes off very well, and from a dramatic point of view this disc is an unequivocal success. Stylistically things look a little different. Vivica Genaux's performances suffer from an incessant, albeit narrow, vibrato which is not nice, although not as bad as in the recording she entirely devoted to Faustina Bordoni. Simone Kermes is more restrained in this department, but she often goes too far in her ornamentation, regularly exceeding the tessitura of her parts. Ornamentation should be used in the interest of expression, but here seems it to be used for its own sake.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Franco Fagioli
Vivica Genaux
Simone Kermes
Lawrence Zazzo
Academia Montis Regalis
Cappella Gabetta
Clavecin en concert
La Nuova Musica

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