09 November 2014

CD REVIEW: Prides of Parnassus – Franco Fagioli’s IL MAESTRO – PORPORA ARIAS (Naïve V 5369) & Xavier Sabata’s I DILETTANTI (Aparté AP093)

CD REVIEW: IL MAESTRO - PORPORA ARIAS (Naïve V 5369) & I DILETTANTI (Aparté AP093)1. NICOLA PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Il Maestro – Arias from Carlo il Calvo, Didone abbandonata, Ezio, Meride e Selinunte, Polifemo, Il ritiro, Semiramide riconosciuta, Il verbo in carne, and VulcanoFranco Fagioli, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis; Alessandro De Marchi, conductor [Recorded in Sala di Santa Croce, Academia Montis Regalis, Mondovì, Italy, in June 2013; Naïve V 5369; 1 CD, 79:45; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

2. VINCENZO BENEDETTI (1683 – ?), DIOGENIO BIGAGLIA (1676 – 1745), EMANUELE D’ASTORGA (1680 – circa 1757), GIACOMO MACCARI (1700 – 1744), BENEDETTO MARCELLO (1686 – 1739), and GIOVANNI MARIA RUGGIERI (1665 – 1725): I Dilettanti – Baroque Cantatas and Arias—Xavier Sabata, countertenor; Latinitas Nostra; Markellos Chryssicos, harpsichord and musical direction [Recorded in l’Ateneu d’Avià, Barcelona, Spain, 12 – 15 August 2013; Aparté AP093; 1 CD, 58:22; Available from harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

From a psychological perspective, it is tremendously dangerous for an individual to be in love with memories. For artists and artistic institutions, it is equally parlous for those who love music to dwell among their recollections of musicians and performances of past generations. Many have been the singers whose feats before studio microphones, in an environment in which they controlled the music rather than the other way round, have instigated disappointment in the theatre, but the naysayer who despairs that there are no Flagstads, Melchiors, Scottos, or Bergonzis on the world’s stages today owes it to himself to hear Il Maestro and I Dilettanti. Every age has its great artists if audiences are prepared to search for them beyond the boundaries of outdated conventions. Today, there are perhaps no Isoldes to rival Flagstad, no Tannhäusers of Melchior’s security, no Lady Macbeths of Scotto’s fluency, and no Pinkertons of Bergonzi’s unaffected charm, but the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century has in Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata a pair of exceptional singers whose voices and artistic intelligence equal those of the finest singers of the past. These gentlemen do not sing Verdi and Wagner rôles, but it should not be forgotten that Kirsten Flagstad—in many estimations the most accomplished Senta, Elsa, Elisabeth, Brünnhilde, and Isolde of her time and perhaps of all of the Twentieth Century; and also a competitive Kundry—excelled as Händel’s Rodelinda. Great, important singing is not and should not be thought to be confined to particular repertories or styles of singing. The listener who denies himself the opportunity to hear the performances on these two discs because he is unacquainted with this repertory does a gross disservice to himself, to these singers, and to the composers whose music is performed. Is not singing of the quality offered on Il Maestro and I Dilettanti to be preferred to half-hearted, by-the-notes bungling through the scores of the handful of ‘popular’ composers who dominate the world’s stages?

Natives of Argentina and Spain, respectively, both Mr. Fagioli and Mr. Sabata are singers whose careers on stage and in studio have developed meteorically in recent seasons under the auspices of Parnassus Arts Productions. Unlike many such astronomically-routed artists, however, these gentlemen seem destined to persevere for years to come in the often disenfranchising domain of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century. After taking the 2003 Bertelsmann ‘Neue Stimmen’ prize when he was only twenty-two years old, Mr. Fagioli’s début on disc was a superb but too-little-known recital of arias by Händel and Mozart. In the subsequent decade, he has given notice of his continually-expanding artistry with a progression of acclaimed recordings. Even among an impressively diverse and rich discography, Il Maestro preserves Mr. Fagioli’s finest singing in the recording studio to date. In addition to having tutored the young Franz Joseph Haydn, Nicola Porpora both taught and composed for several of the most lauded castrati of the Eighteenth Century, including Caffarelli, Farinelli, and his namesake, Porporino, and though his name is still not as familiar to modern audiences as those of Händel and Vivaldi his music deserves the star treatment that it receives here.

Fantastically supported by the stylish, unfailingly lovely playing of Academia ​Montis Regalis and the passionate but period-appropriate leadership of Alessandro De Marchi, Mr. Fagioli makes an indelible impression by refusing to tiptoe through Porpora’s music. Every ritornello, detail of instrumentation, and occurrence of word painting is exploited by the musicians of Academia Montis Regalis, and Mr. Fagioli and Maestro De Marchi communicate insightfully via performances that maintain dramatic vitality without dimming the rays of Italianate gioia that shine in the arias on Il Maestro. Special mention must be made of the plangent theorbo playing of Josep Maria Martì Duran and the delightful mastery of the wind machine by Giovanna Barbati and of the thunder machine by Alessandro Baudino and Giorgio Tabacco, but the level of musical achievement among all of the instrumentalists is consistently high.

The rôle of Valentiniano in Porpora’s opera Ezio was created in the opera’s 1728 Venetian première by soprano castrato Domenico Gizzi, and the tessitura of his aria ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ is higher than would be comfortable for many countertenors, but it holds no terrors for Mr. Fagioli. The resilience of the singer’s bravura technique is immediately put to the test, but he affirms in every aria on this disc that his unflappable mastery of Baroque vocal effects is overwhelmed by none of Porpora’s demands. From Semiramide riconosciuta, also first performed in Venice in 1728 or perhaps 1729, Mr. Fagioli takes on another soprano aria, the title heroine’s ‘Il pastor se torna aprile,’ first sung by Lucia Faccinelli. This he sings with consummate grace, his timbre unmistakably masculine but allied with a regal demeanor befitting one of opera’s most iconic monarchs. The rôle of Scitalce in the same opera was originated by the castrato Nicolini, and Mr. Fagioli pays homage to what must have been a magnificent voice with a stunning account of the character’s aria ‘Vorrei spiegar l'affano.’ The growing evenness of Mr. Fagioli’s lower and upper registers is much in evidence, and his diction continues to become more refined with each subsequent recording despite lingering vestiges of the cadences of his native Spanish. Both arias from Semiramide riconosciuta occasionally find the voice sounding slightly hollow, particularly at range extremes, but Mr. Fagioli’s singing on this disc is generally characterized by an ingratiating tonal richness intermittently compromised by his pronounced vibrato.

With one legendary heroine rescued, another is abandoned, and Araspe’s barn-burning aria ‘Già si desta la tempesta’ from Didone abbandonata​, first performed in Reggio Emilia in 1725, draws from Mr. Fagioli especially bold, powerful singing. The fiery expressivity that he devotes to this aria is perpetuated in his traversals of a pair of arias from the 1727 Venetian opera Meride e Selinunte, Ericlea’s ‘Torbido intorno al core’ and Selinunte’s ‘Con alma intrepida.’ An intrepid soul is indeed at work in his singing of these arias, the powerful sentiments of both texts conveyed with impeccably accurate coloratura and colorful negotiations of register shifts. Adalgiso’s aria ‘Spesso di nubi cinto’ from the 1738 Roman opera Carlo Il Calvo is a similarly daunting piece that demands—and receives—complete concentration from the singer. Mr. Fagioli is the kind of singer capable of scoring dramatic points in music that other singers approach as unimaginative fodder for vocal display. The strength and security of Mr. Fagioli’s vocalism across more than two octaves are arresting, but it is the sensitivity of his singing that is most impressive. There has sometimes been a somewhat distant quality in his performances, but he here devotes himself to carefully but unobtrusively analyzing the emotional impetus of each aria. This enables him to perceive the purpose of every note and build his performance of each aria upon a foundation of poetic introspection.

His creation of Aci in Polifemo in London in 1735 was one of the most brilliant successes of Farinelli’s career, and perhaps because of its association with the celebrated castrato the aria ‘Alto giove’ was in the Eighteenth Century and is today Porpora’s most widely-known aria. In Porpora’s case, relative familiarity has not bred contempt. As Farinelli was a soprano castrato with a range extending at least to C6 and likely to D6 or even slightly higher, Aci’s arias are also high for a modern countertenor, but Mr. Fagioli emerges unscathed from the grueling vocal environs of both ‘Alto giove’ and the sublime ‘Nell'attendere il mio bene.’ His high notes are exciting, but the real fascination of Mr. Fagioli’s singing of this repertory is the integration of his registers. There are no perceptible breaks in the voice, and his singing of complex passagework is made all the more remarkable by the ease with which he transitions from one register to another.

Porpora’s endeavors beyond the operatic stage are represented by the inclusion of arias from two of his cantatas and the 1748 Dresden oratorio Il verbo in carne. Like Händel, Porpora lavished the same wealth of dramatic imagination on his cantatas that he devoted to his operas, and ‘Non lasciar chi t'ama tanto’ from the cantata Vulcano is a stirring piece that receives from Mr. Fagioli a performance of profound emotional engagement. ‘A voi ritorno campagne amene’ from the cantata Il ritiro is also music of great quality, and Mr. Fagioli sings it charismatically. Even amidst such strong performances, the finest of his artistry is reserved for ‘Distillatevi o cieli,’ an aria for Umanità from Il verbo in carne. Contrasting with his singing of the operatic arias on the disc, which sometimes seems a bit pompous, the lyricism of his voicing of ‘Distillatevi o cieli’ is wondrously effective. The depths of his musicality are seemingly boundless, and with this recital of arias by Porpora Mr. Fagioli asserts that his growth as an artist continues resplendently.

Born in Barcelona, Mr. Sabata shares elements of Mr. Fagioli’s artistic temperament, but his voice is very different from that of his Argentine colleague. Possessing a more sinewy timbre, Mr. Sabata has made a specialty in the world’s theatres of Baroque operatic villains. His quietly anguished singing of the Madre in Les Arts Florissants’ touring production of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant'Alessio disclosed the expressivity of which this gifted singer is capable, however, and the selections on I Dilettanti provide him with ideal contexts in which to display both the boldest and the subtlest hues of his musical palette. Founded by Greek harpsichordist Markellos Chryssicos, the ensemble Latinitas Nostra complements every nuance of Mr. Sabata’s interpretations, lautenist Theodoros Kitsos​ and cellist Iason Ioannou playing with virtuosity of incredible cumulative impact. This consort of Greek musicians unites with Mr. Sabata in creating performances that have replicate in sound the visual splendors of paintings by El Greco.

Giacomo Maccari’s cantata ‘Non mi si dica più’ is a work of superb quality that deserves a place among the better-known cantatas of Händel, Porpora, and Alessandro Scarlatti. The titular opening aria is sung with resonant feeling by Mr. Sabata, and the subsequent recitative, ‘Speranza, unico e solo,’ gains from the intensity of the singer’s delivery a sharply poignant edge. His singing of the aria ‘Ti sovveniste almeno’ is equally revealing, and his affinity for Maccari’s style transfers unabated to the idiom of Barone Emanuele d'Astorga’s cantata ‘In queste amene selve.’ The introductory recitative is nobly sung, and the dignity with which Mr. Sabata phrases the aria ‘Da voi lungi, pupille serene’ is fantastic without seeming stilted. There is a compelling simplicity to his utterance of the recitative ‘Senza di te, mio bene,’ and the naturalness of his diction in the aria ‘Quando a te tornar dovrò’ combines unforgettably with the striking solidity of his tone. Here and in Vincenzo Benedetti’s cantata ‘La Gelosia,’ Mr. Sabata’s technique is more than equal to the demands of the music, his accounts of the recitative ‘Son reo non mi difendo’ and aria ‘Giura il nocchier, che al mare’ paced with certain command of the sentimental implications of the words.

Diogenio Bigaglia’s cantata ‘Più ch'io cerco del mio bene’ is sung by Mr. Sabata with a rousing sincerity that lends the opening aria an unexpected modernity. The broad strokes of the composer’s melodic lines are traced by the singer with absolute conviction, and the stylized declamation of the recitative ‘Ma, che sordi a miei pianti’ inspires Mr. Sabata to recitation worthy of an adept actor of the Shakespearean stage. ‘Son come tortorella’ is a ‘simile’ aria typical of the High Baroque, but there is nothing metaphorical about the straightforward radiance of Mr. Sabata’s singing. Like Mr. Fagioli, he has honed his tonal production to an amazing degree of synthesis of the registers.

Two arias from Giovanni Maria Ruggieri’s 1707 Venetian opera Armida abbandonata provide the artistic zenith of I Dilettanti. ‘Deh m'adita, ò bella Dea’ prompts Mr. Sabata to singing of wonderful immediacy, but it is the exquisite beauty of ‘Vinto son della mia fede’—that of the music itself and of the singer’s vocalism—that enthralls and refuses to be disregarded. The sentimental effusions of Ruggieri’s unadorned melodic line calls upon the most sophisticated of Mr. Sabata’s abilities, and he rises to the occasion with singing of a caliber seldom heard now on stage or on recordings. His performance of this aria alone makes hearing I Dilettanti an astoundingly pleasing experience.

Benedetto Marcello’s cantata ‘Lucrezia’ is a piece that is largely defined by its fiendish coloratura, the astonishingly difficult passagework demanding unwavering focus and breath control that only a handful of singers in the world can provide. His performance permits no doubt of the fact that Mr. Sabata is one of those singers, but the descents into his baritonal chest register usher in harshness that, while justified by the fervency of the text, undermines appreciation of his formidable technical prowess. He sometimes indulges a tendency to sacrifice purity of line to his almost manic verve, and the excesses of Marcello’s musical demands in ‘Lucrezia’ encourage an overabundance of zeal. Still, the music and text are executed marvelously by Mr. Sabata, and every selection on I Dilettanti exposes the pulse-quickening exhilaration of his singing.

Some of the greatest singers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries first sang the music recorded on these discs by Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata. Simply put, after hearing Il Maestro and I Dilettanti who could deny that these two persuasive artists are among the greatest singers of the Twenty-First Century?