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Nicola PORPORA (1686-1758)
Il Maestro
Track listing below review
Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor)
Academia Montis Regalis/Alessandro de Marchi.
rec. Sala di Santa Croce, Academia Montis Regalis, Mondovi (Italy), June 2013
Texts and translations provided.
NA¤VE V5369 [80:35]

Given that I was listening to this CD at much the same time as I was getting to know Lawrence Zazzo’s recital A Royal Trio, comparisons were both natural and inevitable. Of these two superb counter-tenors, Fagioli perhaps has the greater sheer virtuosity, vocal range and brilliance of articulation. Zazzo is, finally – to make a judgement primarily on the evidence of these two CDs, though I would say the same in the light of other work I have heard by the two – the more musical singer. He is the more subtle of the two and the more eloquent in the interpretation of the text and notes — and the relationship between the two — he is singing. If truth be told, where these two specific CDs are concerned, the music on Zazzo’s disc is, on the whole, more rewarding, more profound, more emotionally engaging than that on Fagioli’s disc. Porpora was famous in his own day both as a composer and as teacher of singers including such legendary performers as Senesino and Farinelli. At times, Porpora the composer seems a little too eager to over-indulge the singer, to create a framework for vocal display more than for dramatic or psychological exploration.

In the interesting essay he contributes to the booklet of this CD Stefano Aresi is evidently conscious that such criticism has been, and might still be, levelled at Porpora’s music. He observes that two of the arias Fagioli includes “come from one of Porpora’s masterpieces, Polifemo (1735), written in the London milieu around the librettist Paolo Rolli, in which the composer was able to break away to a large extent from the theatrical usages of the continent and feel free to experiment with new formal and expressive paths”. It is true, as Aresi goes on to say, that ‘Nell’attendere il mio bene’ and ‘Alto Giove’ have a true dramatic power and that Porpora’s music deepens and articulates the significance of his text in an almost Handelian manner. However, the very fact that the argument has to be made in this fashion silently concedes that such claims cannot always be made for much of the music Porpora wrote in other places and years. I cannot claim that my study of Porpora’s music has been extensive, but the impression I have formed — and the impression is confirmed in listening to this CD — is of a composer of great technical skill and facility but perhaps lacking in a distinctive and individual vision of his own. As such he tends to, as it were, take his colouring from his different surroundings — like a kind of musical chameleon — at different times in his career. Aresi himself writes of another of the arias here (‘‘A voi ritorno campagne amene’) that it was “designed to suit the old-fashioned tastes of the Viennese court of Charles VI” and that a further aria (‘Torbido intorno al core’) “from Meride e Silunte, performed at Venice in 1726” is an example “of the ‘new’ Neapolitan style that became dominant in Venice … in the mid 1720s”. Most baroque composers had to adapt themselves to different fashions and audience expectations, but the greatest of them retained, and developed, throughout their careers a coherent and distinctive ‘voice’ of their own beneath or ‘beyond’ such adaptations. Porpora doesn’t really seem to have done so, for all his undoubted skill and his understanding of the voice.

As such, what we are left with on much of this admittedly enjoyable disc is primarily ‘display’ pieces. In Fagioli they find a singer who relishes them for what they are. I wouldn’t want my reservations about Porpora’s music to put off any listener with an interest in high-class vocalism generally or in the counter-tenor in particular from giving a listen to this CD. It contains some extraordinary singing. The very first track, ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ from Ezio, is startling in its complex melismas and Fagioli’s sudden ascents and descents across his considerable range. The technical gifts of the modern counter-tenor have increased enormously in the last few years and Fagioli is undoubtedly one of the new masters. ‘GiÓ si desta la tempesta’, from Didone abbandonata is an aria as stormy as any in Baroque opera, both vocally and orchestrally — the effects aided by a wind machine — even if, as is often the case with Porpora one finally finds it a little lightweight emotionally. Of the range of colours, the power and the agile vigour in Fazioli’s singing — and, indeed, in the playing of the Academia Montis Regalis conducted by Alessandro de Marchi — there is absolutely no doubt to be felt or reservation to be made. Fagioli is fully in control of what sounds like a range of at least three octaves.

So, superb singing and impressive orchestral playing, but it doesn’t finally persuade me that Porpora is a major composer.

Glyn Pursglove

Track listing

‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ (from Ezio, 1728) [3:41]
‘Vorrei spiegar l’affanno’ (from Semiramide riconosciuta, 1729) [6:31]
‘GiÓ si desta la tempesta’ (from Didone abbandonata, 1725) [3:49]
‘Torbido intorno al core’ (from Meride e Selinunte, 1726) [7:57]
‘Il pastor se torna aprile’ (from Semiramide riconosciuta, 1729) [7:15]
‘Distillatevi o cieli’ (from Il verbo in carne, 1748) [6:45]
‘Con alma intrepida’ (from Meride e Selinunte, 1726) [3:42]
‘A voi ritorno campagne amene’ (from Il ritiro) [7:42]
‘Nell’attendere il mio bene’ (from Polifemo, 1735) [5:28]
‘Alto Giove’ (from Polifemo, 1735) [9:13]
‘Spesso di nubi cinto’ (from Carlo il Calvo, 1738) [7:46]
‘Non lasciar chi t’ama tanto’ (from Vulcano, c.1734) [9:56]