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Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686 - 1768): Il verbo in carne

Roberta Invernizzi (Giustizia), soprano; Terry Wey (Pace), alto; Martin Vanberg (Veritŕ), tenor; Marc-Olivier Oetterli, bass
Kammerorchester Basel
Dir: Riccardo Minasi

rec: Dec 5, 2016 (live), Hamburg, Laeiszhalle
Sony - 19075868452 (© 2018) (66'55")
Liner-notes: E/D;
Cover & track-list

Claire Genewein, Claudia Weissbarth, transverse flute; Konstantin Timokhine, Mark Gebhart, horn; Letizia Viola, bassoon; Riccardo Minasi, Valentina Giusti, Tamás Vásárhelyi, Regula Schär, Anna Faber, Mirjam Steymans-Brenner, Nina Candik, violin; Bodo Friedrich, Renée Straub, viola; Christoph Dangel, Hristo Kouzmanov, cello; Stefan Preyer, double bass; Margit Übellacker, psaltery; Daniele Caminiti, theorbo; Francesco Pedrini, harpsichord, organ

Christmas is one of the major feasts in the Christian world. No wonder this has left its mark in the music written in the course of history. Whereas few large-scale works for this time of the year were written after 1800, in previous centuries many composers contributed to the repertoire for Christmas, from little songs for a solo voice to large-scale oratorios for solo voices, choir and orchestra. However, the character of the repertoire strongly differs from one region to the other. This can be explained by the religious differences within Europe. Most oratorios were written by composers from the Lutheran part of Europe. In comparison, concertos to be performed at Christmas Eve were a typical Italian phenemenon, and unknown in Protestant Germany.

Oratorios were very popular in Italy, but these were not very large, both in length and scoring. They usually consisted of two parts, and were scored for five solo voices, who also took care of the few choruses, and an ensemble comprising a small number of strings and basso continuo. Such oratorios were mostly performed during Lent, and often ended with a reference to the Passion of Christ. Oratorios for Christmastime were rare, although it may be possible that such works have not been discovered yet. We know of a few Christmas cantatas, such as Antonio Caldara's Vaticini di Pace (Rome, 1712) and Elpino, Tirsi, e Angelo (Rome, 1723) by Giovanni Battista Costanzi. From that perspective, the recording of Il verbo in carne (The Word made Flesh), an Oratorio per la nascita di Gesů Cristo, by Nicola Antonio Porpora is of major importance.

Today, Porpora is especially known for having been one of the main vocal teachers of his time, in particular of some famous castratos, such as Farinelli. Recently some of his cantatas have been recorded, and arias from his many operas have been included in recitals. The latter part of his output still waits to be discovered. The same goes for his oratorios and large-scale cantatas. However, this part of his oeuvre is not that large. Several such pieces have been lost or preserved incomplete. Il verbo in carne is the only oratorio for Christmastide; Porpora composed also two Christmas cantatas, probably comparable to the cantatas by Caldara and Costanzi mentioned above. The oratorio has come down to us in two versions. New Grove mentions that it was performed at 25 December 1748, probably in Rome. This is also the year mentioned in the autograph score, now preserved in London. The booklet to the present recording refers to an earlier performance in Naples. There a printed libretto has been found which is datable to around 1747. The famous Santini collection in Münster (Germany) includes a score, which is a 19th-century copy, but is a setting of the Neapolitan libretto. A comparison of the two versions shows that Porpora adapted the original version in several ways. For instance, he removed passages which specifically refer to Naples, adapted the alto part, transposed two arias and recomposed some recitatives.

With seventeen arias, a duet and two trios as well as a number of instrumental sections, this is a large-scale work that lasts over two hours. As one may guess from the playing time of this disc, the oratorio was performed in Hamburg in a strongly abridged version. It originally opens with a Prologue, but that has been entirely omitted. As a result, the character of Humanity, which appears only in the Prologue, has completely disappeared. The remaining roles for soprano, alto and tenor represent three further allegorical characters: Justice, Peace and Truth respectively. They are joined by a bass in the choruses which close the two parts.

This oratorio is not a description of the events around the birth of Christ nor does it include quotations from the Bible. It is a rather a dialogue between the characters: "[The] two virtues resolve to descend to earth in an attempt to improve the fate of humanity. Truth then tells them about the birth of Christ, and they hurry to Bethlehem to pay him homage. Once there, they reflect on the meaning of the mystery of the Nativity, and on the positive consequences it will have for mankind." (booklet)

This oratorio bears witness to Porpora's qualities as an opera composer. The arias are hardly different from what was common in operas of the time. It is notable that many recitatives are accompanied, which gives additional opportunities for a dramatic setting of the text. As one will have noticed, this oratorio is quite different from most oratorios written in Italy from the late 17th to the mid-18th century. That also manifests itself in the instrumental scoring: in addition to strings and basso continuo, it includes parts for two transverse flutes, two horns, a bassoon and a psaltery.

As I already indicated, the oratorio is heavily cut, and that not only includes the entire Prologue, but also all arias for the tenor. This results in a lack of balance between the three soloists. Equally unsatisfying is that the sinfonia that opens the oratorio is immediately followed here by the sinfonia at the start of the first part. The length of this performance suggests that about half of the work has been omitted. Considering the importance of this oratorio and its quality, that is regrettable. It fully deserves a complete recording. The arias are sung by Roberta Invernizzi and Terry Wey, and both are experienced interpreters of this kind of repertoire. No wonder that they have no problems with the coloratura and ornamentation; these are stylistically convincing. They are right in their restraint in the cadenzas. It is a shame that their voices often flutter and switch between notes, especially at the end of phrases. Martin Vanberg delivers a good performance of his small role, and I would have liked to hear him in some arias. The orchestra is excellent: its playing is colourful and dynamically differentiated. Although this is a live recording, there is hardly any noise. Only at the end of the last aria we hear some applause; apparently it was not possible to remove that in the production stage. At the end of the entire performance we get 90 seconds of applause, which is a bit exaggerated in a CD production.

Despite some issues, especially the many cuts, this production deserves our attention. Let's hope some day we will have the opportunity to hear this work at full length.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Martin Vanberg
Terry Wey
Kammerorchester Basel

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