In recent years the operas of Vivaldi have been recorded on disc
and are regularly performed in opera houses all over Europe.
He was the last representative of the Venetian opera tradition
that had flourished for about a century, beginning with Monteverdi.
In his later years he faced growing competition from Naples.
Operas by Neapolitan composers and operas following the Neapolitan
style became increasingly popular. In fact it is mainly the intermezzos
and comic operas from Naples which have received the attention.
By contrast the opera seria
have largely been 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 but in the 1720s he spent about
seven or eight years in Naples, where he became a pupil of Alessandro
Scarlatti. He 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
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 written for other cities. Flavio Anicio Olibrio
performed in Rome in February 1722; it was the reworking of one
of his first operas written in 1711. Lucio Papirio
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
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
- one of the most frequently
performed and recorded compositions of the 18th century. Of his
secular music the intermezzo La Serva padrona
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
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
change considerably 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
, 'Lieto così talvolta', takes more than 14
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
is something that has not always been avoided on this disc.
Let me first say that we should be thankful for a disc like this.
It 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 significance of this kind of discs.
A programme with arias cannot 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 examples - for example some rage arias - are alternated
with 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 supported only
by the basso continuo. In the aria 'Lieto così talvolta'
by Pergolesi the singer is involved in an extended dialogue with
an oboe that 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
; this explains
why the transverse flute has an obbligato part. This aria is
preceded by a recitative introduced by bird chirping which continues
during the recitative. This is rather kitschy - a rare example
of a miscalculation by the DHM team.
There are some 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
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 but it
is a fascinating and captivating piece thanks to the ingenious
dialogue of voice and oboe. Each part requires 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
realised. The beauty of the aria 'Se non dovesse' from Porpora's Flavio
is expressed by the pizzicato of the strings.
Ms Kermes gives a wonderful performance of this aria - one of
the disc's highlights. 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
One has to be grateful to all the musicians and the record company
for bringing this fine repertoire to our attention. I sincerely
hope it will be a pathfinder for others to perform and record
complete operas by these composers. That will give us an even
better opportunity to assess the quality of this repertoire.
Despite my criticism of some aspects of the performances, the
merits outweigh the demerits. No one interested in baroque opera
should miss this disc.
Johan van Veen