20 May 2018

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — HANDEL ARIAS (Franco Fagioli, countertenor; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541) & Nicola Porpora — OPERA ARIAS (Max Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; DECCA 483 3235)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - HANDEL ARIAS (Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541) and Nicola Porpora - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 483 3235)[1] GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Handel AriasFranco Fagioli, countertenor; Il pomo d’oro; Zefira Valova, concertmaster and director [Recorded in Sala Rossa, Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, in March 2017; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7541; 1 CD, 79:52; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Opera AriasMax Emanuel Cenčić, countertenor; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in the Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 6 – 9 March and 4 – 12 September 2017; DECCA 483 3235; 1 CD, 75:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

The Russian actor and pedagogue Konstantin Stanislavski famously quipped that ‘there are no small parts, only small actors.’ Virtually every actor engaged to portray Chorus Girl Number Seven in a blockbuster Broadway revue or Silent Roman Centurion in a cinematic epic clings to an optimistic interpretation of Stanislavski’s assertion, trusting that true talent is as apparent in ten seconds of screen time as in ten pages of dialogue. In opera, this could be equated with a singer making as great an impact in undemanding recitative as a colleague manages to create in an intricate aria—a feat achieved on stage and in studio by some of opera’s foremost singing actors. Still, it cannot be denied by even the most unbiased aficionado that there are niches in opera’s four-century repertory that, though in no way of ‘small’ quality, require the advocacy of specially-qualified artists. Anyone who has heard poorly-sung performances of Baroque music can be pardoned for questioning whether the long-ignored operas of the late Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries truly merit rediscovery. In order to reclaim the impact that they exercised on audiences in the Eighteenth Century, the arias of composers like Georg Friedrich Händel and Nicola Porpora need singing of the distinction of Claudia Muzio’s and Rosa Ponselle’s performances of music by Verdi and Puccini. Such singing is ever in short supply, but some of Händel’s and Porpora’s finest opera arias receive on new discs from Deutsche Grammophon and DECCA performances by countertenors Franco Fagioli and Max Emanuel Cenčić that embody the system of bringing characters to life advocated by Stanislavski: feeling the emotions of the individuals they portray, even in the context of studio-recorded recitals of individual arias, Fagioli and Cenčić confirm that they are ingenious artists, here playing large parts in facilitating the modern reassessment of Eighteenth-Century vocal music.

Unlikely as it may seem to Twenty-First-Century observers, there was little difference in the eminence of Händel’s and Porpora’s reputations among their contemporaries. When a rival company was formed with the aim of undermining Händel’s dominance of Italian opera in London, Porpora was imported to serve as its presiding genius, both as composer and organizer of a troupe of singers to compete with Händel’s regular ensemble of foreign and domestic virtuosi. Renowned throughout Europe as a pedagogical paragon of the Neapolitan school of singing that produced the celebrated castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli, Porpora was sufficiently appreciated to have been invited to fill Antonio Vivaldi’s former post at the helm of the lucrative musical activities at Venice’s Ospedale della Pietà.

Paralleling the similar perceptions of Händel’s and Porpora’s artistic merits in the Eighteenth Century, there is little to choose between Il pomo d’oro’s playing in Fagioli’s recital of Händel arias and Armonia Atenea’s backing of Cenčić’s accounts of Porpora arias. Led in this performance by Zefira Valova, the Pomo d’oro musicians transform their instruments into participants in the dramas that play out in arias that Fagioli sings. Armonia Atenea’s artistic director George Petrou leads his colleagues in accompanying Porpora’s arias with dauntless technical and interpretive dexterity. The performances of both ensembles are insightfully molded to complement the styles of the composers and singers, Il pomo d’oro’s emotionally-charged sonorities suiting Händel and Fagioli and the bold colors of Armonia Atenea’s soundscapes mirroring Porpora’s and Cenčić’s sensibilities. Moreover, these performances reflect the tremendous progress in producing ear-pleasing sounds made by period instrument ensembles since the inception of the historically-informed performance practice movement. Perhaps accompaniment of this caliber does not truly enhance the distinction of the singing, but it indisputably increases the listener’s enjoyment of it.

Recorded in celebration of his victory in the 2003 Bertelsmann Neue Stimmen competition, Fagioli’s first commercial recording featured arias by Händel and Mozart, handsomely if slightly anonymously sung. In the subsequent fifteen years, Fagioli has fastidiously honed his artistry, both on stage and in studio. To this release, his first solo recital disc dedicatedly wholly to the music of Händel, he brings an abiding musicality that is only occasionally compromised by over-emphatic delivery. In the performances on this disc, Fagioli is on excellent form, but there are fleeting moments in which he seems to be pushing the voice uncomfortably. His voice is an extraordinary instrument that impresses without manipulation, and his technique largely enables him to meet the demands of the most difficult music without forcing. In his singing of the Händel arias on this disc, he is at his best when he surrenders himself to the music. He needs only to follow where Händel leads in order to find greatness.

Still undeservedly among Händel’s least-known works for the stage, the 1734 pasticcio Oreste (HWV A11) was tailored to the abilities of a fine cast that included the castrato Giovanni Carestini, often cited as Farinelli’s foremost rival for recognition as the greatest singer of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, as the title character. Fagioli here performs Oreste’s aria ‘Agitato da fiere tempeste’ with dazzling agility that sounds frantic only at the top of the range.

The title rôle in Serse (HWV 40), created in the opera’s 1738 première by Caffarelli, is a near-perfect fit for Fagioli, who also recorded the part complete in conjunction with a concert performance at Opéra Royal de Versailles in 2017 and will return to it in an European tour with Il pomo d’oro in October and November 2018. The brief ‘Frondi tenere e belle’ is perhaps the most famous recitative in any of Händel’s operas, and Fagioli mostly evades the trap of over-singing, exercising restraint and resolving cadences without distorting the flow of the text. The recitative is followed by one of Händel’s most familiar arias, albeit one that has suffered in the guise of ‘Händel’s Largo’ almost every conceivable bowdlerization in the 280 years since it was first sung. Thankfully, ‘Ombra mai fu’ is now allowed to cast its spell with more authentic tempi, and Fagioli sings it captivatingly. He voices ‘Crude furie degl’orridi abissi’ with gravitas, evincing the sentiments of the text by exploring Händel’s vivid musical imagery.

Composed in 1711, Rinaldo (HWV 7) was the score with which Händel secured both his own and Italian opera’s fortunes in London. The name part was created by the castrato Nicolini, for whom Händel wrote music of tremendous musical and dramatic variety. The exquisite ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’ is one of its composer’s most affecting contemplative arias, and Fagioli sings it with palpable, nuanced emotion, magnifying the pathos of the words without imposing anachronistic Freudian subtexts. The bravura brilliance of his performance of the electrifying ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ is arresting but almost too aggressive. The voice rockets through the tessitura thrillingly, but the undeniable impact of the highest notes comes at the expense of lessened focus and beauty in the middle of the voice.

After an uncharacteristically long gestation, Imeneo (HWV 41) reached the stage in 1740, with Giovanni Battista Andreoni, who also created the rôle of Ulisse in Händel’s Deidamia the following year, taking the rôle of Tirinto. The castrato must have been delighted by the opportunity for exhibiting his histrionic abilities afforded by the aria ‘Se potessero i sospir miei,’ and Fagioli honors his memory with a performance of edge-of-the-seat immediacy. Nearly three decades earlier, the part of Mirtillo was created in the 1712 première of Il pastor fido (HWV 8) by Valeriano Pellegrini, who had sung Nerone in the Venetian première of Händel’s Agrippina in 1709. Fagioli brings to Mirtillo’s ‘Sento brillar nel sen’ the easy command of the fiorature that the music demands, but he also traces the vocal line with imaginative phrasing. Singing the aria competently is a feat, but Fagioli convincingly recreates Mirtillo’s predicament with sounds that stoke the listener’s empathy.

Perhaps none of Händel’s operas merits the attention that it has received in recent years as completely as his 1725 masterpiece Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi (HWV 19), a musical tangle of amorous intrigue and presumed death of the type frequently encountered in Baroque opera. Senesino’s rôle was Bertarido, the rightful ruler of Lombardy who is believed to have been slain, and his Twenty-First-Century counterpart fully expresses the horror, shock, and anger of a man confronting the sight of his own tomb in ‘Pompe vane di morte.’ The aria that follows, ‘Dove sei, amato bene,’ is one of those miraculous passages in which the affectation of opera is stripped away, enabling a deluge of genuine, timeless emotions to flow from the music. Producing a commendably well-integrated stream of tones and tastefully ornamenting the da capo repeat, Fagioli exercises welcome restraint, imparting Bertarido’s inherent dignity as meaningfully as his desperation.

First performed in 1724, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17) was the score by which Händel’s standing as a composer of opera was maintained for generations, and it remains his most widely-known—and likely still his most frequently-performed—opera. The title rôle is perhaps the most overtly heroic of the parts that Händel wrote for Senesino, but the aria ‘Se in fiorito, ameno prato’ reveal’s the hero’s latent romanticism. Historical accounts of his stage presence suggest that Senesino was not altogether convincing as a lover. In this realm, Fagioli has a decided advantage, his virile voicing possessing a core of magnetic attractiveness that he puts to good use in his voicing of ‘Se in fiorito, ameno prato.’ There is no doubt that this is a Cesare with tyrannical inclinations, but sensuality is one of his most potent weapons.

The first of two operas that Händel composed for the Covent Garden Theatre in 1735, Ariodante (HWV 33) has proved to be one of the composer’s most enduring scores, its name part, created by Carestini, having been sung in recent seasons by renowned and diverse singers including Cecilia Bartoli, Dame Sarah Connolly, and Joyce DiDonato. Fagioli joins their company with performances of Ariodante’s two most familiar arias. To the animated ‘Scherza, infida, in grembo al drudo’ he devotes an exhibition of bravura singing of the highest order. Still, it is his intense but tranquil singing of the serenely beautiful ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ that impresses most. Baroque vocal music is equated by some listeners with the difficult passagework that consigned it to generations of neglect, but there are moments, a number of which are found in Händel’s operas, in which Baroque music rivals the emotional sophistication of Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. Fagioli’s singing of ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ on this disc assumes a place among Elisabeth Grümmer’s, Maria Callas’s, and Kirsten Flagstad’s unforgettable performances of Pamina’s ‘Ach, ich fühl’s,’ Violetta’s ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ and Isolde’s Liebestod.

In the 1730 Season that included the first production of Partenope (HWV 27), the Bolognese castrato Antonio Bernacchi replaced Senesino as Händel’s primo uomo, interpreting the rôle of Arsace in Partenope. To the extent that the music that he wrote for Arsace can be assessed as a benchmark, Händel seems to have harbored great esteem for Bernacchi’s abilities. Could they hear his performance of ‘Ch’io parta?’ on this disc, both Händel and Bernacchi would undoubtedly regard Fagioli with the respect due to an exemplary interpreter and an equal. From the first casts to Dame Janet Baker, Helen Watts, and Marilyn Horne, Händel’s operatic rôles in mezzo-soprano range have been sung by an array of engaging artists, each of whom brought unique qualities to the music. Foremost among Fagioli’s Händelian virtues is the absolute confidence in the importance of this music that is audible in every bar that he sings on this disc. This is a disc that should be heard by those listeners who continue to doubt the effectiveness of Händel’s music for today’s singers, theatres, and audiences.

Leading men of Baroque opera: composers NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (left) and GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (right) in Eighteenth-Century engravingsNicola Antonio Porpora (left) and Georg Friedrich Händel (right)
[Source: Eighteenth-Century engravings in the public domain]

The espousal of Porpora’s music that engendered a fantastic DECCA studio recording of the composer’s opera Germanico in Germania [reviewed here] led the ever-inquisitive Cenčić to seek in the composer’s still-under-appreciated body of work arias awaiting rediscovery via which his passion for Porpora’s singular idiom could be translated into performances of stylistic authority. As an artistic laboratory in which experiments utilizing elements of past, present, and future trends were conducted in musical form, Porpora’s career was not unlike Mahler’s, in whose music the past of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms met the future of Bax, Britten, and Berio. Porpora was perhaps more of a synthesizer than an innovator, but the adroitness with which he absorbed, modified, and individualized aspects of his contemporaries’ compositions is evidence of the depth of his inventiveness. Throughout his career, Cenčić has been a musical catalyst, not only reviving forgotten Baroque repertory but also broadening the reach of the countertenor voice with projects including his creation of the rôle of the Herold in Aribert Reimann’s Medea. Critical to the success of Cenčić’s initiatives is his understanding of the fact that even the most exalted aspirations are betrayed by haphazard musicianship. When he commits to a project, it is with undeviating focus and diligence. This has rarely been more discernible than in his performances of the arias on this disc. By lending his percipient artistry to reintroducing these pieces, Cenčić expands his significance as a pivotal, persuasive champion of Porpora’s music.

The cast of the 1728 Venetian première of Porpora’s Ezio was graced by a pair of acclaimed castrati: Domenico Gizzi, who portrayed Valentiniano, and the famed Nicolino, who sang Ezio. Familiar to modern listeners owing to their appearances in operas by Händel and Gluck, Valentiniano and Ezio are two of Eighteenth-Century opera’s most widely-traveled characters. In his performance on this disc, Cenčić matches the virtuosity of the blazing trumpets in Valentiniano’s aria ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ with remarkably assured handling of the cyclonic coloratura. His singing of Ezio’s ‘Lieto sarò di questa vita’ is equally exciting, his vocal colorations mirroring the subtle, shifting hues of the text. Cenčić’s naturalness on stage tellingly permeates these performances. Whereas Fagioli looked inward in his singing of Händel arias, seeking the motivations within the characters’ hearts, Cenčić projects the emotions of Porpora’s characters across the unseen footlights, acting even when before studio microphones.

The structure of Ericlea’s aria ‘Torbido intorno al core’ from Meride e Selinante, written for the 1727 Venetian Carnevale season, reveals kinship with the tuneful slow movements of Vivaldi concerti. Cenčić crowns his nobly-phrased account of the aria with a truly superb final trill. Porpora’s most celebrated pupil Farinelli was the first Agamennone in Ifigenia in Aulide, premièred in 1735 in London, and the volleys of fiorature with which Porpora shaped the aria ‘Tu, spietato, non farai’ are reminiscent of similar music by Johann Adolf Hasse. Cenčić despatches the divisions with indefatigable technical acumen, but, as must have been true of Farinelli, it is the perceptiveness with which Cenčić integrates the coloratura into his portrayal of the aria’s drama that mesmerizes.

Porpora’s Filandro was first heard in 1747 in Dresden, a center for operatic progress in which cultural cross-pollination yielded strikingly original musical blossoms. The Arcadian finesse of ‘Ove l’erbetta tenera, e molle’ is sustained by delicate writing for recorders that comment on a dulcet vocal line, gracefully delivered by Cenčić. The countertenor’s vocalism in ‘D’esser già parmi quell’arboscello’ is a model of Italianate bel canto technique appropriately returned to the repertory from which the fundamentals of bel canto emerged. Providing another vehicle for Farinelli, Poro was first performed during Torino’s 1731 Carnevale. Bolstered by raucous horns and timpani, the great castrato surely made a dashing impression with the martial aria ‘Destrier, che all’armi usato.’ Cenčić here sings the number with electrifying bravado, the contrast between his upper and lower registers heightening the effect of his take-no-prisoners machismo.

Premièred in 1734, Enea nel Lazio was one of the operas that Porpora wrote for London during his tenure as composer-in-residence for the opera company founded by aristocrats organized by the Prince of Wales as a rival to Händel’s second Royal Academy, which enjoyed the patronage of the prince’s parents, King George II and Queen Caroline. Italian opera’s prominence in London was then already being supplanted by entertainments in the vernacular, including Händel’s own oratorios, but Porpora’s music for the English capital, typified by the aria ‘Chi vuol salva la patria e l’onore,’ enjoyed popularity among the cognoscenti. The listener need not be a scholar or a nobleman in order to appreciate Cenčić’s singing of ‘Chi vuol salva la patria e l’onore,’ his voice ably limning the gallantry of the text. Having abandoned Händel and joined Porpora and the Opera of the Nobility, Senesino remained loyal to the Italian composer, ultimately making his farewell to staged opera as Turno in the 1740 Naples production of Porpora’s Il trionfo di Camilla. The arias ‘Va per le vene il sangue’ and ‘Torcere il corso all’onde’ indicate that Senesino remained a very capable singer until the end of his career—or else that Porpora expected him to be. Cenčić voices ‘Va’ per le vene il sangue’ with intensity that builds to a stirring climax. His traversal of ‘Torcere il corso all’onde’ is among his most memorable recorded performances: in the agility, accuracy, and artfulness of these four minutes of his singing beats the heart of Cenčić’s artistry.

Three of Lottario’s arias from Porpora’s opera Carlo il Calvo, premièred in Rome in 1738, are here heard for the first time on disc. ‘Se rea ti vuole il cielo’ receives from Cenčić a performance of particular urgency, the voice surging with enhanced pointing of the words’ meaning. The lyricism of ‘Quando s’oscura il cielo’ draws from the singer vocalism of mellifluous expressivity. The full panoply of his faculties is deployed in ‘So che tiranno io sono,’ the voice flickering with the character’s remorse and self-recrimination.

Seven years before his retirement from the stage, Senesino sang the rôle of the mythological hero Teseo in the 1733 première of Porpora’s Arianna in Nasso, and the musical and dramatic requirements of the aria ‘Nume che reggi ’l mare’ were unquestionably customized to the castrato’s gifts, which were documented by Eighteenth-Century Londoners to have included the declamatory power of a musical orator. Today’s listeners can only conjecture about how Senesino sounded in his performances of Porpora’s music, but, if he sang ‘Nume che reggi ’l mare’ as eloquently as Cenčić sings it on this disc, his place in musical history is justified by this alone.

Whether the repertory is Baroque, bel canto, or verismo, the viability of opera largely depends, now as much as when Senesino first sang in London in 1720, upon the continual presence on the world’s stages of singers for whom opera is not artifice but a way of life—singers, as these discs reaffirm, like Franco Fagioli and Max Emanuel Cenčić. In recent months, both Fagioli and Cenčić have added fully-staged interpretations of Rossini rôles to their repertoires, the former singing Arsace in Semiramide and the latter portraying Malcolm in La donna del lago in a new production that he also directed. The horizons of countertenor singing now rightly extend well beyond the boundaries of repertoire written for castrati. With singers of Fagioli’s and Cenčić’s stature leading the way, the continued viability of both countertenor singing and opera in general is guaranteed.