Porpora Carlo il Calvo Parnassus Arts

Nicola Porpora (1686–1768)
Carlo il Calvo – opera seria in 3 acts (1738)
Libretto by Franceso Salvini
Adalgiso – Franco Fagioli (countertenor)
Lottario – Max Emanuel Cenčić (countertenor)
Gildippe – Julia Lezchneva (soprano)
Giuditta – Suzanne Jerosme (soprano)
Asprando – Petr Nekoranec (tenor)
Berardo – Bruno de Sá (male soprano)
Eduige – Nian Wang (mezzo)
Armonia Atenea/George Petrou
rec. 2021, Athens
Parnassus Arts PARARTS002 [3 CDs]

Bayreuth now has two opera festivals – and the second would have horrified Wagner. The Bayreuth Baroque Opera Festival celebrates everything he set his face against in the Ring: star singers, vocal virtuosity, da capo arias, coloratura, melisma, and musical and theatrical flamboyance. Is the Baroque festival’s founder, star countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić, cocking a snook at the austere doctrines of Musikdrama and Bühnenweihfestspiel?

However, the Margravial Opera House was there long before Wagner built the house on the hill. Built in the 1740s, the UNESCO-listed building is the only entirely preserved Baroque court opera house – and Nicola Porpora’s Carlo il Calvo (1738) may have been performed there in its heyday. It was the opening work performed in the Baroque festival’s first season in 2020, and staged there again in 2021.

This recording was made in Athens in 2021, under the propulsive baton of George Petrou.

Porpora was one of the most renowned composers of his age. His operas, premiered in both Italy and Vienna, made him famous throughout Europe. When looking for a rival to Handel in the 1730s, the British aristocracy chose Porpora; the success of the Operas for the Nobility was short-lived, and the Italian left London after the triumph of Handel’s Atalanta (1736). As an old man in Vienna, Porpora taught singing and composition to his valet, one Joseph Haydn. Sadly, audiences lost their taste for Porpora’s virtuosic style (his last work, Il trionfo di Camilla, failed in 1760), and he died in poverty.

Composed shortly after Porpora’s return from London, Carlo was his fortieth opera. It concerns Charlemagne’s heirs’ struggle for power. The Holy Roman Emperor’s grandson, Lottario [Lothar], kidnaps and tries to murder the rightful heir to the throne, his half-brother, Carlo [Charles the Bald] (a non-singing child). But Lottario’s son, Adalgiso, loves Carlo’s half-sister, Gildippe. Where will his loyalties lie?

The indefatigable Cenčić directed the opera, too. He moved the scene to 1920s Cuba, and turned the convoluted mediaeval saga into a fast-paced thriller of gunplay and gangsters, with a big song and dance number (the Charleston) at the end. (That production can be seen on YouTube.) Forum Opéra named it the best new production of the year.

However, it is the singing that matters above all else – and that is rightly extraordinary. Porpora was, as musicologist Frank Walker remarked in 1951, “the greatest teacher of singing among composers, and the greatest composer among teachers of singing”. His pupils included the great castrati Faranelli and Caffarelli (who studied a single page of exercises for six years). 

This recording features two of the three greatest countertenors in the world: Cenčić himself (Lottario, the villain) and Franco Fagioli (the rather wet Adalgiso). Fagioli likes to imagine himself a modern pupil. “To learn from singing his arias, what a joy, and what a challenge!” he wrote in his 2014 album, Il maestro: Porpora. “His special style of writing, full of trills, long coloratura passages, endless long phrases in the melancholy arias… So emotional, so profound, and at the same time so effective… He was such a great teacher that after some of his arias one is ready to sing any other Baroque aria.” For his part, Cenčić relishes the “almost sadistic” challenge of the arias (Porpora Arias, 2018).

Carlo was written for Rome, where papal edict banned women from acting. All the parts, male and female, were sung by men. The Catholic Church objected to women onstage, but thought gelded men in drag making love was quite moral. Here – unlike the already legendary 2011 production of Vinci’s Artaserse, which featured five countertenors – two travesty – and one tenor – women sing women’s rôles. Soprano Julia Lezhneva, a regular but remarkable member of Cenčić’s ensemble (e.g., Hasse’s Siroe re di Persia), sings Gildippe, revelling in Porpora’s demands and complex ornamentation. Suzanne Jerosme is an impressively haughty Giuditta, Carlo’s mother, while mezzo Nian Wang (Eduige) is a welcome contrast to the higher voices; hers may be the lowest voice. The tenor, Petr Nekoranec (Asprando), has a light but attractive voice. Male soprano Bruno de Sá, a rising star, makes his feature recording début as the confidant Berardo; his is a pure, silvery voice.

Posterity, however, marked Porpora down as a vocal sensualist. “As befitted a famous singing-teacher,” Warrack & West (The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1997) wrote, “he displayed a consummate ability to write elegant melodic lines displaying the singer’s abilities to best effect.  But the emphasis on vocal virtuosity, excessive even by the standards of the day, hindered dramatic articulation.  Though more talented than many of his contemporaries, Porpora was no match for Handel, beside whom his style is stilted and lacking in dramatic intensity.  Even during his lifetime, criticisms were levelled that his music was too florid and ornamented; and his works, though not his reputation, soon passed from the repertoire.” 

Dr Boris Kehrmann, writer of the booklet notes for Carlo, objects to that simplistic view. “A glance at the aria types shows that denying Porpora dramatic impact is a nationalist cliché voiced thoughtlessly parrot-fashion by earlier German Handel scholars.” Certainly, I find Porpora and the Neapolitan school just as beautiful and more dynamic, more thrillingly virtuosic than Handel, who can often seem sedate.

The score consists of 26 arias (16 arias d’azione, seven allegorical arias, two introspective ‘affect’ arias, and one didactic aria di sentenza), plus a duet in Act III. Three arias from other Porpora operas were interpolated in the stage production; the recording does not include these.

Carlo contains one of Porpora’s most beautiful arias, “Quando s’oscuro il cielo”, whose melody slowly unfurls like the petals of a flower. Cenčić recorded it elsewhere, and part of the pleasure comes from hearing in context this and other arias familiar from Cenčić and Fagioli’s albums: Lottario’s “Se rea ti vuole il cielo” and “So che tiranno io sono”, or Adalgiso’s “Spesso di nubi cinto” – but disappointingly, Fagioli does not plunge into chest voice, as he does in 2014.

As Gildippe, Lezhneva has several fine arias: her first aria, “Sento, che in sen turbato” is a marvel of vocal display; and “Se nell’amico nido” is a meltingly lovely lament. Her duet with Fagioli is 13 minutes of exquisite, surprisingly erotic, musical canoodling. Among the secondary parts, Giuditta’s rage aria “Vorresti, a me sul ciglio” and Eduige’s “Il provido Cultore” both impress.

If the opera has a flaw, it is a surfeit of beauty. Individually, each aria is lovely, but, as W. S. Gilbert remarked, “joy incessant palls the sense, and love, unchanged, will cloy”. Listening to 26 arias, all sung in the upper reaches of the voice, with nary a bass nor baritone to be heard, becomes monotonous by Act II. One does rather long for a chorus or ensemble, too. Carlo has a smaller emotional range and seems less consistently inspired than, say, Germanico in Germania, the previous Porpora opera Cenčić resurrected, or Vinci’s countertenor feasts, Artaserse and Catone in UticaCarlo is best appreciated over a couple of days – but it is a work Baroque fans will thoroughly enjoy.

Nick Fuller

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