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Duel - Porpora and Handel in London
Giuseppina Bridelli (mezzo-soprano)
Le Concert de l’Hostel Dieu/Franck-Emmanuel Comte
rec. 2018, Temple Lanterne, Lyon, France
Sung texts in French with translations in English and German enclosed
ARCANA A461 [65:50]

The title of this album, “Duel”, refers to the supposed rivalry between Handel and Porpora, when they were simultaneously active as composers in London in the 1730s. In reality there seems to be little evidence that there was any animosity. On the contrary there is evidence that they admired each other’s music and Handel even included nine arias by Porpora in four pasticcios between 1730 and 1732. One example is represented on this disc: Quando piomba improvvisa saetta from Porpora’s Poro, which Handel inserted, slightly modified, in Catone in Utica (tr. 18).

Having thus killed the myth we need not bother about the enmity, just sit back and enjoy the music of two contemporaneous composers – one still remembered as one of the greatest of all times, the other more or less forgotten, in spite of being highly regarded during his lifetime. Nicola Porpora was born in Naples in 1686 – the year after Handel – and had a career as composer of operas (more than 50) and other vocal music but was best known as teacher of singing. Among his students were several of the most famous castratos of the time, including both Farinelli and Caffarelli. He was rather successful as composer in Venice and was invited to London in 1729 by an anti-Handel clique to set up his own company to compete with Handel and, hopefully, drive him out of business. This failed, however, and eventually his company, the “Opera of the Nobility”, went bankrupt and Porpora left. After stints in Dresden and Vienna, where the young Joseph Haydn became his student, he returned to Naples, where he died in poverty in 1768. A lot of his music has been recorded, even several complete operas, but this is, as far as I’ve been able to find out, the first disc where his music is juxtaposed with Handel’s, and in that respect it becomes a kind of duel – but fairly peaceful.

Sta nell’ircana pietrosa tana from Handel’s Alcina is a high-octane opening: fast, dramatic and with virtuoso coloratura singing. Giuseppina Bridelli’s technical brilliance is stunning and in the midst of the cascades of tones she also finds time to be expressive. The playing of the orchestra is just as stunning and they have tremendous force.

The contrast couldn’t be greater when we change to Porpora and Teseo’s prayer to the God of the Seas from Arianna in Naxo:
Pray calm the tempest,
And let the planet Venus
Guide with its rays
Two faithful lovers.
Spread over the clear waters
The lovely breezes
That once courted
Cupid’s mother
With their sweet gusts.
Soft, noble and caring singing and the music sails so safely over the waves. Truly beautiful. Soft, slow and beautiful is also David’s recitative from the oratorio David e Bersabea with expressive accompaniment. The aria proper is more flowing and again one admires Ms Bridelli’s marvellous technique. The tripartite overture to Polifemo opens majestically and slowly, followed by a fast middle section and then ends majestically again. A fine overture, worthy to be compared to Handel. The aria A questa man verrà is from Calcante e Achille, an opera performed after Porpora’s London sojourn, possibly in Austria or Northern Italy, but it contains music from Ifigenia in Aulide, which premiered at King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London on 3 May 1735. It is lively and rhythmic and full of virtuoso coloratura. A show-stopper!

Handel offers as a contrast Ariodante’s tragic aria Scherza infida in grembo al drudo, where the title character begrudges his beloved’s betrayal and heads for death’s embrace, but promises to return “as a desolate shadow and formless spirit” to cause her grief. Giuseppina Bridelli sings expressively with great care over nuances. Occasionally her vibrato can be a bit insistent but in general she keeps it in check. Back to Porpora again and Polifemo, with Calipso’s aria. The accompaniment is very expressive, but I can’t help feeling that there is a lot of rather empty coloratura. Still, the energy of the music makes it worthwhile anyway.

The ballet suite from Handel’s Ariodante is varied and attractive, without being particularly memorable, but Mitridate’s aria from Porpora’s Mitridate is one of the best pieces here. Originally written for Rome in 1730 the opera was revised by the composer for performances in London in 1736. The recitative and aria from Handel’s Tolomeo is another highlight. The recitative is dramatic with powerful responses from the orchestra, while the aria Stille amare is truly beautiful with practically no embellishments.

Finally the already mentioned borrowing of a Porpora aria for Handel’s Catone in Utica. This is a showpiece of great intensity and with inspiring rhythms – a riveting finale to this attractive recital. I can’t find any particular logic in the programming, but it is a well contrasted mix and the recording is impeccable. The singing is of the highest order and lovers of baroque opera should snap it up without delay.

Göran Forsling

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Alcina HMV 34 - London 1735:
1. Sta nell’ircana pietrosa tana [5:29]
Nicola PORPORA (1686 – 1768)
Arianna in Naxo – London 1733:
2. Nume she reggi ‘l mare [7:13]
David e Bersabea – London 1734:
3. Dolce è su queste alte mie logge a sera [2:17]
4. Fu del braccio onnipotente [5:57]
Polifemo – London 1735:
5. Ouverture [1:26]
6. Allegro [1:51]
7. Without tempo indication [2:20]
Calcante e Achille – unknown location, possibly Austria or Northern Italy 1737-1745:
8. A questa man verrà [4:12]
George Frideric HANDEL
Ariodante – London 1735:
9. Scherza infida [9:16]
10. Il gioir qualor s’aspetta [5:46]
George Frideric HANDEL
Suite de ballet
11. Entrée des Songes agréables (Largo e piano) [1:25]
12. Entrée des Songes funestes [1:51]
13. Entrée des Songes agréables effrayés [0:41]
14. Le combat des Songes funestes et agréables [1:30]
Mitridate – London 1736:
15. Alza al soglio I guardi [4:13]
George Frideric HANDEL
Tolomeo HWV 25 – London 1728:
16. Inumano fratel, Barbara madre [1:49]
17. Stille amare, già vi sento [4:15]
Catone in Utica HWV A7 – London 1732:
18. Quando piomba improvvisa saetta (from Nicola Porpora: Poro – Turin 1731) [4:11]

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