26 January 2018

CD REVIEW: Nicola Antonio Porpora — GERMANICO IN GERMANIA (M. E. Cenčić, J. Lezhneva, M.-E. Nesi, J. Sancho, D. Idrisova, H. Bennani; DECCA 483 1523)

IN REVIEW: Nicola Antonio Porpora - GERMANICO IN GERMANIA (DECCA 483 1523)NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Germanico in GermaniaMax Emanuel Cenčić (Germanico), Julia Lezhneva (Ersinda), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arminio), Juan Sancho (Segeste), Dilyara Idrisova (Rosmonda), Hasnaa Bennani (Cecina); Capella Cracoviensis; Jan Tomasz Adamus, conductor [Recorded at Radio Kraków, Kraków, Poland, 23 July – 3 August 2016; DECCA 483 1523; 3 CDs, 217:39; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Anyone who saw Gérard Corbiau’s fanciful 1994 cinematic reimagining of the life of the celebrated castrato Farinelli was introduced to a frazzled, ill-tempered Nicola Antonio Porpora who bullied his illustrious pupil into becoming one of history’s most revered singers. Corbiau’s ogre of a Porpora, impersonated with consummate gruffness by Omero Antonutti, was undeniably entertaining and effective as a component of a narrative that portrayed Farinelli as a hapless victim of fate, but this boorish incarnation of the composer little resembles the Porpora who emerges from his surviving music, too little of which has been made available via good-quality recordings to listeners willing to reassess the man and his work.

Born in Naples in 1686, Porpora was a product of the cosmopolitan musical culture of his native city, dominated during his formative years by Alessandro Scarlatti, whose compositional style strongly influenced the young Porpora’s artistic development. No less significant in the evolution of Porpora’s own style, particularly in writing for the voice, was his encounter with the poet Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, then not yet known as Metastasio: the most renowned librettist of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, he would author the texts for some of Porpora’s most successful operas. Success was not something to which Porpora ever became accustomed, however. Praised and popular at times in his career, his compositions often sprang to life amidst difficult circumstances.

Though his operas gained traction with London audiences during his much-publicized rivalry with Georg Friedrich Händel in the 1730s, the company for which they were written, the Opera of the Nobility, nonetheless failed. Perhaps most cruelly, Porpora suffered the fate of outliving appreciation of his individual musical language. By the time that he returned to Naples in 1759, his artistic journey having taken him to many of Europe’s music-loving metropolises, the emerging stile galante was rapidly supplanting the florid Baroque style of which Porpora was an exponent. Prone to hardship even when he employed as a scantily-paid valet the young Joseph Haydn, who would later acknowledge the obstinate Neapolitan as a teacher of inestimable value to his musical education, Porpora was tormented during the final years of his life by debilitating poverty. At the time of his death in 1768, he lacked the money to pay for his own burial.

It is principally as a composer that Porpora is remembered in the Twenty-First Century, but his legacy as a trainer of voices, glimpsed in Corbiau’s film, endured well into the Nineteenth Century, when castrati last originated rôles in Europe’s opera houses. Like the similarly sensationalized depiction of Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play and Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus, Corbiau’s treatment of Porpora in Farinelli is not entirely without merit: injurious as it is to historical accuracy, there is undeniable benefit in even a brief, unrealistic glance at Porpora’s impact on vocal tutelage. The glimmer of the meticulously-honed pedagogy that, enabling him to write masterfully for the voices known to him, facilitated commissions to compose operas like his 1732 Germanico in Germania increased the public’s curiosity about Porpora’s music. Now, more than three decades after the film’s theatrical release, ​with the availability of singers capable of meeting the grueling demands of Porpora’s vocal writing, reviving the composer’s operas is again feasible. These rebirths of curiosity and feasibility intersect persuasively in this recording of Germanico in Germania.

First performed in Rome’s Teatro Capranica in February 1732, Porpora’s setting of a finely-crafted libretto by Niccolò Coluzzi charges into the conflict between Germanico, the figurehead of Roman authority in the feudal domains that constitute modern Germany, and the fiercely independent Arminio, leader of a realm under Rome’s unwanted dominion. This being Baroque opera, the courses of neither love nor war proceed smoothly, here complicated by the struggles of a Germanic chieftain loyal to Rome, Segeste, whose two daughters’ fealties are divided between embracing and resisting Roman rule. To the credit of composer and librettist, as well as to the performance that transpires on this recording, what amounts to a convoluted story told in a score of long duration is surprisingly easy to follow. The extensive passages of secco recitative move swiftly but logically, aided immeasurably by the clarity and commitment with which they are sung in this performance.

Recorded in the studios of Radio Kraków, ​​this performance plays out in an acoustical space that falls marginally short of DECCA’s long-established high standards of technological excellence. The timbres of the instruments of Capella Cracoviensis are sometimes adversely affected, giving the recording an one-dimensional, studio-bound setting in which musicians, conductor, and singers must work harder to enliven the performance. By adopting generally quick tempi, Jan Tomasz Adamus strives to maintain musical propulsion throughout the performance, but there are passages in which the singers might have benefited from more sympathetic leadership and stricter, more consistent guidance of ornamentation.

Supplementing the conductor’s own efforts at the keyboard, harpsichordist Marcin Świątkiewicz​ plays nimbly—slightly too nimbly in some instances. It is unlikely that anyone listens to Baroque opera solely in order to enjoy secco recitatives, no matter how cleverly they are accompanied. In this performance, the accompaniments are indeed very clever and irreproachably musical but sometimes overwrought. Tiziana Azzone injects the theorbo into the soundscape with expert judgement, however, balancing the continuo and heightening the expressivity of several key scenes. The intrepidity of horn players Anneke Scott, Olivier Picon, and, in Cecina’s Act Two aria ‘Se dopo ria procella,’ Martin Lawrence yields exhilarating if not always attractive realizations of Porpora’s punishing writing for the valveless horns. The recording’s dry acoustic harshens the orchestral sonorities, but the sheen of the players’ collective virtuosity is undimmed. Germanico in Germania is not an opera that can triumph without support from pit and podium, and, overcoming a few problems, Capella Cracoviensis and Adamus offer the singers a setting in which triumph is within reach.

Ever a vivid presence who figuratively transports a recorded performance from studio to stage, tenor Juan Sancho contributes some of his finest singing on disc to date to this traversal of Germanico in Germania. He has in the rôle of Segeste, the Germanic chieftain who has embraced Roman citizenship, an exceptionally congenial part with vocal writing that exploits the strongest of his technical and interpretive skills. As in many of his recorded performances, Sancho sets an example for his colleagues with his alert, responsive singing of recitatives. In Act One, he sings Segeste’s aria ‘Nocchier, che mai non vide l’orror della tempesta’ with blazing tone and fiery demeanor, spotlighting the character’s temperamental kinship with Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano. His aria in Act Two, ‘Scoglio alpestre in mezzo all’onde,’ inhabits a vastly different emotional world, and, prefaced by particularly pointed delivery of recitative, the tenor limns the transition with resourcefulness, luring the listener into the quicksand of Segeste’s predicament.

Sancho can reach greater heights of dramatic intensity in a few bars of accompanied recitative than some singers attain in ten-minute arias, as he demonstrates in his zealous delivery of the accompagnato ‘Empi, del vostro scherno’ in Act Three of Germanico in Germania. Segeste’s final aria, ’Saggio è il cultor,’ is sung with strength and subtlety. With the exceptions of the parts in his London operas and oratorios that Händel wrote for John Beard, rôles for tenor in Baroque works rarely achieved the levels of distinction occupied by the notable castrato parts, but Sancho’s portrayal of Segeste takes full advantage of every detail of characterization devised by Porpora and Coluzzi. Vocally, he has few rivals in music of this vintage, his domination of which he increases with this performance.

Since her earliest performances, Julia Lezhneva has reliably displayed extraordinary technical prowess that thrives in the bravura excesses of Baroque music. Nevertheless, the expressive maturity of her depiction of Segeste’s younger, Rome-friendly daughter Ersinda in this performance is as impressive as her confident handling of Porpora’s music. More so than in any of her previous recordings, Lezhneva connects with the character on a profound level, conveying the psychological conflict of a young girl both devoted to her father and his ideology and sensitive to her sister’s staunch support of her husband in defiance of their father. Ersinda’s inherent naïveté does not preclude flashes of ardor, here invigorated by Lezhneva’s agile vocalism. The sole problem with the soprano’s singing of Ersinda’s first aria in Act One, ‘Al sole i lumi pria mancheranno,’ is the over-ambitious embellishment, which causes the intended coloratura feats to seem slightly beyond the singer’s capacity to execute them. This is especially unfortunate as no proof of Lezhneva’s talents other than her unflappable negotiations of the difficulties of Porpora’s vocal lines is required.

Tellingly, Lezhneva subsequently sings the aria ‘Se sposa d’un Romano’ with unerring control and stylishness, the meaning of the text palpably imparted. She further refines her depiction of Ersinda with singing in Act Two in which virtuosity and insightfulness are united in service to the drama. The savage fiorature of ‘Veder vicino il suo contento’ are tamed with astonishing ease, and her effortlessly sparkling trills recall Beverly Sills’s finest singing. The dramatic consequence of the contrast with ‘Sorge dall’onde’ is accentuated without exaggeration, Lezhneva’s clear enunciation of vowels sharpening the focus of her analysis of Ersinda’s actions and motivations. The pinnacle of Lezhneva’s performance is her account of the Act Three aria ‘Se possono i tuoi rai vedermi ognor penar.’ The best of her artistry shines in her singing of this music: the voice is magnificent, of course, but the heart is no less awe-inspiring. ​Along the course of her pursuit of technical excellence, Lezhneva has also deepened her understanding of the emotional aspects of bringing an operatic character to life, and in this performance she expresses Ersinda’s feelings as expertly as she sings her music.

Born in Morocco, soprano Hasnaa Bennani brings to her performance as the Roman captain Cecina in Germanico in Germania a wealth of experience in French Baroque repertoire that has polished her instincts for finding the expressive cores of dizzying fiorature. The results of this aptitude are evident in every moment of Bennani’s singing in this performance. A dynamic participant in recitatives, she brings similar boldness to Cecina’s aria in Act One, ‘Splende per mille amanti un bel sereno volto,’ voicing both words and music with fervor. She is wholly in her element in Cecina’s accompagnato exchange with Arminio in Act Two, unleashing volleys of adroitly-aimed vocal javelins. The brilliance of Bennani’s management of the punishing divisions in the rousing martial aria with obbligato horns ‘Se dopo ria procella’ is matched by the sincerity of her singing of ‘Serbami la tua fede,’ the voice at its most prepossessing when the character reacts to adversity. In Act Three, Bennani makes the aria ‘Serbare amore e fede’ a sonorous statement of Cecina’s principles. Porpora’s music offers the soprano few moments in which to exercise her talent for lyrical singing, but Bennani convincingly projects Cecina’s bravado without coarsening the lovely texture of her natural timbre.

The tremendous promise that soprano Dilyara Idrisova revealed in her performance as Sabina in DECCA’s studio recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria comes to fruition in the young singer’s portrayal of Arminio’s wife and Segeste’s daughter Rosmonda in Germanico in Germania. At odds with her father owing to her steadfast backing of her husband’s opposition to Rome, the determined lady’s introductory aria, ‘Rivolgi a me le ciglia,’ receives from Idrisova a captivating reading, the voice’s intrinsic delicacy bolstered by adventurous but mostly tasteful ornamentation. The sequence from the accompagnato ‘Sposa infelice, sventurata figlia’ to the cyclonic aria ‘Son qual misero naviglio’ is spanned with imagination and idiomatic musicality, the singer’s restraint in a rôle prone to flamboyance enhancing manifestation of the character’s latent decency.

Idrisova’s superb coloratura singing lends Rosmonda a more distinct profile in Act Two, not least in the aria ‘Il padre mi sgrida,’ in which the singer’s imperturbable assurance is astounding. In both the touching ‘Priva del caro sposo’ and the terzetto with Germanico and Arminio, Idrisova’s Rosmonda refuses to hide in the shadows of male egos. Her interpretation of the aria ‘Dite, che far degg’io?’ in Act Three is molded with punctilious care for maintaining the line without lessening the poignancy of the text. Wife and husband blend their voices handsomely in Rosmonda’s duetto with Arminio, Idrisova phrasing ‘Se viver non poss’io’ with guileless simplicity. The considerable challenges of Porpora’s music for Rosmonda notwithstanding, the touchstone of Idrisova’s performance is dramatic directness. The evenness of her singing is sporadically compromised by thinning of the tone above the stave, but she is a Rosmonda whose few moments of stress are unflinchingly integrated into an honest depiction of a woman whose prevailing loyalty is to love.

Created in Germanico’s Roman première by the celebrated castrato Caffarelli, Farinelli’s rival for the distinction of being remembered as Porpora’s most accomplished pupil, the proud Teutonic chieftain Arminio is inimical to the colonizing Romans despite the danger to himself and the people he loves. Casting rôles written for Caffarelli can be one of the most daunting aspects of modern productions of Eighteenth-Century operas: generally both high and florid, music tailored to the castrato’s abilities is awkward for many countertenors and mezzo-sopranos. In this performance of Germanico in Germania, mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi sings Caffarelli’s part with swagger that suggests that the castrato’s boasts that he rather than Farinelli was Porpora’s greatest protégé were not unfounded. From Arminio’s first entrance in Act One, Nesi makes the valiant warrior a dangerous adversary for Rome and Germanico, presenting his defiance with unshakably firm vocalism. There are ungainly moments in her register shifts in the aria ‘Serba costante il core,’ but she commands the tessitura with few of the shortcomings that mar other singers’ performances of similar music.

The communicative power of Nesi’s voicing of ‘A lei, che il mondo adora’ discloses the rewards of her artistic shrewdness, but here and in the riveting accompagnato scene with Cecina in Act Two it is above all the quality of the voice that compels admiration. The fiendish divisions in ‘Empi, se mai disciolgo’ are dispatched with galvanizing precision at a brisk tempo, elevating the tension that erupts in her nuanced, radiantly beautiful account of ‘Parto, ti lascio, o cara.’ In Nesi’s performance, the character’s integrity is always apparent in the emotionally volatile terzetto with Rosmonda and Germanico. The mezzo-soprano wields such histrionic authority in her articulation of ‘Nemica del valor barbara sorte!’ that this scene in Act Three could veritably be an opera in its own right. The tenderness of this Arminio’s discourse with his wife in the duetto with Rosmonda, ‘Se viver non poss’io,’ is endearing, and, in the opera’s final scene, the accompagnato ‘Vindice Dea’ draws from Nesi declamation of poetic potency. Nesi has ever been a noteworthy interpreter of music originally composed for castrati, but her singing on these discs confirms that her work is one of the most cogent vindications of the rejuvenation of this repertoire.

Expanding his enlightening gallery of portraits of forgotten operatic heroes that already includes compelling portrayals of Händel’s Alessandro, Arminio, and Ottone and Hasse’s Siroe, countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić here assumes command of the Roman forces in Porpora’s and Coluzzi’s Germania as Germanico, a rôle written for the castrato Domenico Annibali, who was also Händel’s first Arminio. Always possessing a timbral richness atypical of countertenors, Cenčić’s singing in Germanico in Germania exhibits an unforced grandeur that ideally suits the imperious but ultimately magnanimous leader and Porpora’s musical profile of him. [Cenčić’s exploration of Porpora’s musical portraiture continues with the release of a DECCA recital of opera arias in March 2018.] The machismo of Germanico’s Act One aria ‘Questo è il valor guerriero d’un’anima romana?’ suits the countertenor’s emphatic style of utterance, and he sustains an aura of sovereignty even when delving into the da capo’s disparate sentiments. The seething fiorature of ‘Qual turbine’ are also familiar territory for Cenčić, and he deftly steers a course through the music that maximizes excitement without devolving into vacuous grandstanding. He sometimes indulges in the invention of elaborate cadenzas that would be more at home in arias by Galuppi or Mysliveček, but his ornamentation of Germanico’s vocal lines is laudably musical.

Were it not for the hive of buzzing strings into which Porpora plunges the melodic line, Germanico’s Act Two aria ‘Nasce da valle impura vapor che in alto ascende’ might exert the allure of Händel’s most beguiling arias, especially as Cenčić sings it here, but the incessant din of the accompaniment spoils the music beyond any singer’s capacity to rescue it. Still, Cenčić’s performance of the aria is eloquent and charismatic. He joins the seditious Arminio and Rosmonda in their terzetto with an incendiary statement of ‘Temi lo sdegno mio, perfido traditore,’ but, unlike some holders of political sway, this Germanico seems to actually listen to his foes. In Act Three, Cenčić sings ‘Per un momento ancora’ ebulliently, and he accepts the resolution of his clash with opponents of his jurisdiction with affability. Like his previous portrayals for DECCA, extending back to a mellifluous Erster Knabe in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte whilst he was a member of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Cenčić’s Germanico is a winning synthesis of scholarship and showmanship.

When Porpora is last seen in the film Farinelli, he is a disheveled, disenfranchised remnant of a fading era. Sadly, history avows that, to some extent, Corbiau got this right. Porpora’s life was undoubtedly burdened by deprivation, but Germanico in Germania is not the work of an embittered, perennially disagreeable man. His career was impaired by the eternal fickleness of fashion, but the silver lining of that capriciousness is the retribution of rediscovery. With this bar-raising recording of Germanico in Germania, Porpora claims this retribution at last.