17 November 2016

BEST BAROQUE RECORDING OF 2016: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi — ADRIANO IN SIRIA (Y. Mynenko, R. Basso, F. Fagioli, D. Idrisova, J. Sancho, Ç. Soyarslan; DECCA 483 0004)

BEST BAROQUE RECORDING OF 2016: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - ADRIANO IN SIRIA (DECCA 483 0004)GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736): Adriano in SiriaYuriy Mynenko (Adriano), Romina Basso (Emirena), Franco Fagioli (Farnaspe), Dilyara Idrisova (Sabina), Juan Sancho (Osroe), Çiğdem Soyarslan (Aquilio); Capella Cracoviensis; Jan Tomasz Adamus, conductor [Recorded in the studios of Radio Kraków, Kraków, Poland, 19 – 26 August 2015; DECCA 483 0004; 3 CDs, 177:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It could not have been surmised at the time at which the infant’s first cries resounded in Rome in 1698 how indelibly the course of opera was altered by the birth into a grocer’s family of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi. A boy with precocious gifts for poetic improvisation and the artful use of words as an expressive device, the young Trapassi was ceded to the custody of an aristocrat who recognized and wished to further cultivate the lad’s talents. It was from his noble patron that Trapassi received the nom de plume that appeared more frequently than any other on opera playbills in the Eighteenth Century: Metastasio. Inheriting and mostly squandering a substantial fortune before he reached the age of twenty-five, the handsome, enterprising Metastasio tried his hand at writing libretti with a flattering text for a serenata celebrating a royal birthday. The first performance of the serenata, set to music by Nicola Porpora, was distinguished by the participation of two of the greatest singers of the age, the castrato Farinelli and soprano Marianna Bulgarelli, both of whom were impressed by the poet’s work. With Bulgarelli’s unstinting advocacy, Metastasio was launched on the path that led to his eventual succession of Apostolo Zeno as imperial court poet to the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1730, the thirty-two-year-old Metastasio settled in Vienna, his name already associated with operas by several of Europe’s most respected composers.

Among Metastasio’s many libretti, his text for Adriano in Siria, a dramatization of episodes in the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, was one of the most successful, its appeal to composers continuing well into the Nineteenth Century. First set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1732, the libretto was taken up by Geminiano Giacomelli, Francesco Maria Veracini, Riccardo Broschi (brother of Farinelli), Baldasdare Galuppi (twice), Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Adolf Hasse, Johann Christian Bach, Josef Mysliveček, Pasquale Anfossi, Luigi Cherubini, Johann Simon Mayr, and hosts of other composers in the century before its last use by a well-known composer, Saverio Mercadante, in 1828. The typically convoluted plot concerning the amorous and political intrigues among Hadrian, the Parthian king Osroa and prince Farnaspe, and the ladies Emirena and Sabina clearly seized composers’ imaginations with its rich lodes of subdued passions, shifting loyalties, and near-constant deception, all rife for musical mining. Two years after the première of Caldara’s Adriano in Siria in Vienna, a treatment of the text by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi reached the stage of Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo. First performed on 25 October 1734, the opera was created by a cast that included Maria Marta Monticelli, Giustina Turcotti, Catarina Fumagalli, and the ill-tempered castrato Caffarelli, begrudgingly acknowledged by Porpora as the finest singer in Italy. Overshadowed in the past half-century by Lo frate ’nnamorato, La serva padrona (originally an intermezzo in Il prigionier superbo), and L’Olimpiade, also a setting of a Metastasio libretto, Adriano in Siria is a masterful example of Neapolitan opera seria and a work that deserves the near-perfectly-executed attention that it receives on this DECCA recording.

His life ended prematurely by consumption before he reached his twenty-seventh birthday, Pergolesi is a figure whose importance to the progressive development of the Italian Baroque is difficult to assess owing to the mythology spurred by Romanticized accounts of his last days and the legacy of his Stabat mater, alleged to have been the best-known and most-published musical work of the Eighteenth Century. This recording of Adriano in Siria significantly expands today’s listeners’ ability to assess Pergolesi’s work within the boundaries of performance practices appropriate for the music. Hearing this recording, it is virtually impossible to accept that the first production of Adriano in Siria did not meet with success. The quality of the performance on these well-engineered discs is extremely high, it is true, but can a performance with Caffarelli at its center really have been markedly inferior? Perhaps even with the light-hearted intermezzo that accompanied it at its première Adriano in Siria was too somber for the farce-loving Neapolitans.

Today’s listeners are certainly no strangers to the phenomenon of genius being rejected whilst mediocrity is embraced, but the performance of Adriano in Siria led here by Jan Tomasz Adamus manifests Pergolesi’s genius in ways that cannot be ignored. The conductor implements tempi that invigorate the now-archaic formulae of opera seria with bristling vitality, only occasionally applying slightly more pressure than the music can withstand, and his work is complemented by the stylish, alert playing of Capella Cracoviensis. Joined on harpsichord by Marcin Świąkiewicz and on theorbo by Ophira Zakai, Adamus keeps the long stretches of secco recitative moving, generating welcome linear continuity among scenes but also granting the singers latitude in highlighting passages of particular importance. The sounds produced by oboists Magdalena Karolak and Aleš Ambrosi and horn players Nicolas Chedmail and Gijs Laceulle contribute excitingly to the orchestral canvas upon which the singers create their character portraits. There is nothing strikingly original in the opera’s Sinfonia, but Adamus and Capella Cracoviensis make it a true introduction to the drama that follows rather than merely a noisy bit of music tacked on at the head of the score. In a few instances, most notably in those arias in which extroverted emotions burst forth, the orchestra’s emphatic playing yields abrasive, excessively-accentuated chords, but every whimper and roar is justified by elements of the plot. Much of Pergolesi’s music warrants the clichéd assessment that the composer was ‘ahead of his time.’ In this performance of Adriano in Siria, Adamus and his colleagues keep pace with Pergolesi’s musical soothsaying from the first note of the Sinfonia to the last bar of the chorus that ends Act Three.

The Roman tribune Aquilio, Adriano’s friend and confidant, has a vested interest in encouraging the emperor’s designs on Emirena: by abandoning the intended imperial consort, Sabina, there would be no obstacle to Aquilio revealing his own love for Caesar’s betrothed. Turkish soprano Çiğdem Soyarslan’s timbre is unmistakably feminine, but she credibly evinces the young man’s romantic dilemma with carefully-managed vocal acting. Hers is an endearingly youthful, almost naïve performance: not even Aquilio’s scheming deprives her singing of its buoyancy. In Act One, Soyarslan delivers ‘Vuoi punir l’ingrato amante?’ with bright, sharp-edged tone and forthright clarity of purpose. Aquilio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Saggio guerriero antico,’ is solidly done, and the soprano’s performance of ‘Contento forse vivere del mio martir potrei’ in Act Three lacks only a prevailing dramatic profile. Still, Soyarslan’s Aquilio is an active participant in the machinations that upset the opera’s amatory equilibrium. Vocally, she is not apt to be mistaken for a man, Roman or otherwise, but she possesses every trait needed to be identified as a singer with great promise.

Portraying the proud Parthian king Osroa, histrionic cousin of Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho sings incisively, limning the hot-tempered sovereign’s dogged pursuit of vengeance with musical braggadocio. The intentions are sometimes more enjoyable than the results, but Sancho holds nothing back in his analysis of the character’s arrogance, animosity, and eventual ambivalence. The Act One aria ‘Sprezza il furor del vento’ is lustily sung, its volleys of fiorature blazingly dispatched. Later, Osroa declares that his daughter and Farnaspe perishing as collateral damage in his plot to burn the seats of Roman power is an acceptable outcome, but his music tells a vastly different story. Sancho expertly but unpretentiously executes every hairpin emotional turn of the accompagnato ‘E pure, ad onta del mio furor,’ the potential consequences of the king’s rash actions suddenly flooding his conscience. The tenor’s voicing of the aria ‘A un semplice istante’ seethes with doubt and guilt. Sancho heightens the contrasts between Osroa’s arias in Acts Two and Three, ‘Leon piagato a morte’ and ‘Ti perdi e confondi,’ by using the texts as the blueprints for his construction of musical edifices. Sancho is an exceptionally intelligent singer who unflinchingly meets every challenge of the parts that he sings, but the stress that his no-holds-barred approach exerts on his upper register can be worrying. His vocalism is as resilient as it is intuitive, however, and his conflicted, rabble-rousing Osroa in this performance is an exhilarating depiction of a flawed, fascinating man.

Assuming the patrician mien of Sabina, whose betrothal to Adriano the emperor is all too willing to ignore in order to woo the conquered Emirena, young Russian soprano Dilyara Idrisova illuminates Pergolesi’s melodic lines with a voice that shimmers like the last rays of twilight on autumn foliage. Still a very young singer, her technique remains noticeably ‘green’ in fiorature, and her placement of tones is not always completely steady. Nevertheless, the unaffected beauty of her singing of Sabina’s aria in Act One, ‘Chi soffre, senza pianto,’ is profoundly fulfilling and wholly appropriate to the dramatic situation. In Act Two, she meaningfully imparts the indignation of ‘Ah, ingrato, m’inganni’ without over-emoting or distorting the lovely timbre of her voice. ‘Splenda per voi sereno’ draws from her a wholly different spectrum of vocal colors, used with the utmost delicacy even when the character is under duress. The Act Three aria ‘Digli ch’è un infedele’ receives from Idrisova a performance of maturity and refinement that belie her youth. The noble lady’s trials do not seem out of place in the handling of her young interpreter, and the music is movingly, sometimes magically sung. What an auspicious introduction this is for a singer who seems poised to prove an invaluable asset to performances of Baroque repertory.

When Adriano in Siria was first performed, both Aquilio and the title rôle were assigned to female singers in travesti, a boon to the production’s irascible primo uomo that serendipitously avoided pitting Caffarelli against a rival castrato. For this recording, though, Adriano is restored to the proper gender in a mercurial performance by Ukrainian countertenor Yuriy Mynenko. Gilding his attractive voice with a bright edge, Mynenko convincingly projects Adriano’s regal bearing, articulating text imperiously and phrasing with authority. His aria in Act One, ‘Dal labbro che t’accende,’ is delivered with abundant feeling and technical prowess. Of an altogether different ethos is Adriano’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tutti nemici e rei,’ and Mynenko impresses by adapting his comportment so discernibly within the parameters of the characterization he has created. Furthering this achievement, he fashions a traversal of ‘Fra poco assiso in trono Cesare parlerà’ in Act Three that adds another dimension of complexity to his Adriano. The efficacy of Mynenko’s artistry is revealed by the adroitness with which he transforms a petulant, self-centered autocrat into an approachable, sympathetic man whose heart is as volatile as his empire. Teatro San Bartolomeo’s impresario got it right in 1734: had he been compelled to compete with singing as dexterous, thoughtful, and even throughout the range as Mynenko provides here, Caffarelli would have been fuming.

Pergolesi’s music for Emirena, the daughter of Osroa who, though betrothed and deeply devoted to Farnaspe, has the misfortune of rousing Adriano’s passion, is ideally suited to the voice and dramatic attitudes of Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. In fact, reviving Adriano in Siria was worthwhile solely for the opportunity that it afforded Basso to be heard in this part. The lone native Italian in the cast, her diction is a beacon for her colleagues, who strive to reach the level of communicativeness that she effortlessly exhibits. Basso’s voice, here sounding at its absolute peak, is an extraordinary instrument, her ebony-hued, contralto-like lower register ideally integrated with the rich upper reaches. It is a voice in which the tears of tragic heroines sparkle—a voice in which, in the context of Adriano in Siria, the pain of a woman who believes that she has been abandoned by her lover resounds with heart-wrenching beauty. Both of Emirena’s arias in Act One, ‘Prigioniera abbandonata’ and the sublime ‘Sola mi lasci piangere,’ are sung with impeccable musicality and in-depth understanding of the texts. Not surprisingly, Basso shapes recitatives nearly as memorably as she sculpts arias, her impassioned but reliably tasteful utterances in secco recitatives constituting the dramatic spine of the performance. As she brings it to life, ‘Quell’amplesso e quel perdono’ in Act Two becomes a poignantly intimate expression of uncertainty. The Act Three duet with Farnaspe, ‘L’estremo pegno almeno ricevi,’ is lofted by Basso’s singing to dizzying heights of ecstatic sensuality. Basso is the rare artist in whose singing early composers’ goals of using the new genre of opera to recreate the exalted ideals of Greek drama are fully realized. As potent an exponent of her repertory as Stignani and Simionato were of theirs, Basso here offers a performance of Pergolesi’s Emirena to stand alongside Stignani’s Adalgisa and Simionato’s Eboli.

If Caffarelli sang Farnaspe more brilliantly in Naples in 1734 than Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli does on these discs, the most flattering contemporary commentary about the castrato did not do him justice. Few singers possess the technical wherewithal to sing music composed for Caffarelli, and this is especially true of Pergolesi’s music for Farnaspe in Adriano in Siria. Ferocious in terms of both its near-ridiculous bravura writing and its two-octave compass, Farnaspe’s music requires nothing less than best-in-the-world virtuosity and largely receives it from Fagioli in this performance. His entrance aria in Act One, ‘Sul mio cor so ben qual sia,’ is the stuff of singers’ nightmares, but Fagioli’s wide-awake, intrepid singing clears the music’s hurdles with athleticism to spare. Without question, Fagioli forces his superb natural instrument, usually when braving rapid-fire fiorature, but he is a shrewd singer who knows and respects the voice’s limitations. The expressivity of which he is capable surges to the surface in the aria with which Farnaspe ends Act One, ‘Lieto così talvolta,’ a discourse with a splendidly-written oboe obbligato. In this music, the twenty-four-year-old Pergolesi rivaled Händel as a musical poet, and Fagioli recites the young composer’s verses lovingly. Farnaspe also ends Act Two, the aria that Pergolesi gave him for this purpose, ‘Torbido in volto e nero,’ again testing the singer’s capabilities. Fagioli aces this test, but he is at his best in the Act Three duet with Emirena, ‘L’estremo pegno almeno ricevi.’ Momentarily setting aside the responsibilities of his rank, Farnaspe is here a tender lover, and Fagioli blends his tones with Basso’s gorgeously. Even among today’s ranks of gifted countertenors, Fagioli is sui generis. His portrayal of Pergolesi’s Farnaspe on this recording is singing of an order of which the pioneers of his Fach, world-changing artists like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, can scarcely have dreamed.

As recently as a decade ago, the appearance on a major label of a studio recording of any of Pergolesi’s surviving operas was unimaginable. Who, though, might have imagined that in 2016 it would be possible to record a Pergolesi opera with far greater success than could be mustered in recordings of scores by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Richard Strauss? With this fantastic recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria, the DECCA discography welcomes a release worthy of inclusion among the label’s classics of previous generations, recordings like Knappertsbusch’s Meistersinger, the elder Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier, Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten, and Solti’s Ring. Thus is our brave new—or, rather, old—world!