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"Lava - Opera Arias from 18th Century Napoli"

Simone Kermes, soprano
Le Musiche Nove
Dir: Claudio Osele

rec: Nov 4 - 11, 2008, Neuwied/Engers, Villa Musica/Schloss Engers (Dianasaal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697 54121 2 (© 2009) (76'47")

Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Antigono (Perché, se tanti siete); Didone abbandonata (Ti dici ch'io non speri); Viriate (Come nave in mezzo all'onde); Leonardo LEO (1694-1744): Il Demetrio (Manca sollecita); Giovanni Battista PERGOLESI (1710-1736): Adriano in Siria (Lieto così talvolta); L'Olimpiade (Mentre dormi amor formenti; Tu me da me dividi); Nicola Antonio PORPORA (1686-1768): Flavio Anicio Olibrio (Se non dovesse il piè); Lucio Papirio (Morte amara; Tocco il porto); Leonardo VINCI (1696?-1730): Artaserse (Fra cento affanni e cento; No che non ha la sorte)

In recent years the operas of Vivaldi are regularly performed in opera houses all over Europe and have been recorded on disc. He was the last representative of the Venetian opera which had flourished for about a century, beginning with Monteverdi. But in his later years he faced growing competition from Naples. The operas by Neapolitan composers and operas following the Neapolitan style became increasingly popular. It is mainly the intermezzos and the comic operas from Naples which has been given attention to, whereas the opera seria has been largely ignored. This disc brings arias from opere serie by composers who in one way or another were associated with Naples.

Not all of them were born Neapolitans, and not all operas represented on the programme were composed for or even performed in Naples.
Johann Adolf Hasse was German, of course, but in the 1720s he spent about seven or eight years in Naples, where he became a pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti and emerged quickly as one of Naples' most celebrated composers of, in particular, intermezzi. In the 1750s he worked again in Naples for some time. The arias on this disc are from three operas. Viriate dates from 1739 and was performed during carnival season in Venice. Didone abbandonata and Antigono were both first performed in Dresden in 1743 and 1744 respectively, but were both also performed in Naples in 1744. The tracklist is a little confusing in this respect.

The oldest composer on this disc is Nicola Antonio Porpora, who was born and also died in Naples, but in between worked at many different places in Europe, including Vienna and London. He was famous not only as a composer but also as singing teacher. Among his pupils were two of the most famous castratos of the 18th century, Farinelli and Caffarelli. The arias on this disc are from two operas which were both written for other cities. Flavio Anicio Olibrio was performed in Rome in February 1722; it was the reworking of one of his first operas written in 1711. Lucio Papirio was composed for the carnival season of 1737 in Venice.

Of the same generation is Leonardo Leo, who today is best-known for his cello concertos. But that is a rather small part of his oeuvre which is dominated by secular vocal music, in particular operas. Just one aria from this large output is recorded here, from his opera Il Demetrio, again not written for Naples but for Torremaggiore, near Foggia, in 1735.
Also of Porpora's generation was Leonardo Vinci, not born in Naples, but musically educated in one of the city's conservatories. His main activity was the composition of operas; Artaserse was written for a performance in Rome in 1730.

Lastly Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, who without any doubt is the most famous of all composers on this disc. But his fame is mostly based on his Stabat mater which is one of the most frequently performed and recorded compositions of the 18th century. Of his secular music it is in particular the intermezzo La Serva padrona which is quite famous. His output isn't comparable to that of the other composers on this disc due to his early death. Two of his opere serie are represented here. L'Olimpiade was written in 1735 for Rome, whereas Adriano in Siria was composed for Naples the year before. The primo uomo in the latter opera was the castrato Caffarelli whose participation urged Pergolesi to considerably change the libretto by Pietro Metastasio. In order to give him the opportunity to display his skills a number of arias were much extended. This explains why the aria from Adriano in Siria, 'Lieto così talvolta', takes more than 14 minutes.

From this perspective it is probably not out of order to give much attention to vocal virtuosity. And so the addition of virtuosic ornamentation and cadenzas can be justified. Even so there is always the danger of going overboard in this respect, and that hasn't always been avoided on this disc.

Let me first say that we should be thankful for a disc like this which puts composers in the spotlight who have not received the attention they deserve. A disc with arias can be useful to whet the appetite for the operas from which they have been taken. In my view that is the main signifance of this kind of discs. A programme with arias can not really satisfy. Being taken out of their dramatic context they can't have the full impact they would have if performed within the opera as a whole.

The programme has been well put together, though, as the more extraverted arias - for example some rage arias - are alternated by more lyric and intimate pieces. Remarkable in the programme is the role of various melody instruments. 'Morte amara' from Porpora's Lucio Papirio has a solo part for the violin which introduces the aria in which the soloist is only supported by the basso continuo. In the aria 'Lieto così talvolta' from Pergolesi's Adriano in Siria which I mentioned before the singer is involved in an extended dialogue with the oboe which has a quite virtuosic part to itself. Sometimes the oboe imitates the voice, but there are also moments when they move along unisono and on other occasions the oboe echoes the voice. In this aria the strings only enter the proceedings at the end of the A part, almost like a ritornello as was common in the late 17th century.

In this aria the oboe - and later also the voice - imitate the nightingale which is the subject of the aria, used as a metaphor for a lover. A bird figures in the aria 'L'augelletto in lacci stretto' from Hasse's Didone abbandonata, which explains why the transverse flute has on obbligato part. This aria is preceded by a recitative and this is introduced by bird chirping which continues during the recitative. I think this is rather kitschy, and one of the blots on this recording.

There are others: some cadenzas are overdone and make little sense. The cadenza in 'Vo solcando' from Vinci's Artaserse, for instance, is highly exaggerated, and so is the harshness of Ms Kermes' voice on the word "naufragar" (shipwreck). And as much as one has to admire Ms Kermes' ability to perform the lowest notes with real power I doubt whether her technique to achieve this is in accordance with the vocal aesthetics of the 18th century. Examples can be found in 'Come nave in mezzo all'onde' from Hasse's Viriate, and in the first aria of this disc, 'Tu me da me dividi' from Pergolesi's L'Olimpiade. In the latter Ms Kermes misses the point when she sings an extended ornament on "barbaro" in the dacapo. And the general pause in the A part of 'Perché, se tanti siete' from Hasse's Antigono is too much extended in the dacapo.

That said there is much to enjoy here. The music is mostly of very good quality and it is a shame it has been ignored so long. The aria 'Lieto così talvola' may be very long, it is a fascinating and captivating piece thanks to the ingenious dialogue of voice and oboe. Each part requires an impeccable technique, and both Simone Kermes and oboist Michael Bosch meet the requirements with impressive ease. The other instrumental obbligato parts are equally well executed.

Simone Kermes impresses with her dynamic control in 'Morte amara' from Porpora's Lucio Papirio. The repetition of notes in the vocal and the string parts in the rage aria 'Fra cento affanni e cento' from Vinci's Artaserse is effectively realised. The beauty of the aria 'Se non dovesse' from Porpora's Flavio Anicio Olibrio is expressed by the pizzicato of the strings. Ms Kermes gives a wonderful performance of this aria which is one of the disc's highlights. And although I have expressed my doubts about the way she realises the low notes in some arias, her ability to sing the ascending and descending figures in 'Come nave in mezzo all'onde' from Hasse's Viriate is really impressive. These figures depict the text: "Like a ship upon the sea, so confused are your thoughts". It is one of several examples of a striking illustration of the text in the arias on this disc. Lastly I was most pleased to hear the theatrical manner in which Simone Kermes sings the recitative 'No che non ha la sorte' from Vinci's Artaserse.

One has to be grateful to all musicians and the record company for bringing this fine repertoire to our attention. I sincerely hope it will be an encouragement to perform and record complete operas by the composers on this disc. That will give us even a better opportunity to assess the quality of this repertoire. Despite my criticism of some aspects of the performances, the merits outweigh the deficits, and therefore no one interested in baroque opera should miss this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Simone Kermes
Le Musiche Nove

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