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Fanfare # 47.1 (09/10-2023)
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Analyste: Bertl van Boer


History tends to think of Nicola Porpora mostly as the teacher of a young Joseph Haydn, whom he employed as a butler while giving him lessons in composition in Vienna. But even before this, Porpora had an illustrious career as a composer of opera seria in the newly emerging galant style, and he had a reputation for interesting and sometimes quite progressive music, even as he adhered to the conventions of the genre. Thanks to an interest in reviving what was once thought to be a moribund or at least uninteresting and tedious style of opera, Porpora is among a number of composer’s whose works both can appeal to modern tastes and which do fit on stage, albeit often in modern guise.

Porpora composed around 55 operas, mainly for Italian stages, and he was one of the composers who was seen as a one of the harbingers of the new style of music that was thicker textured, more formally unified, and which combined the older Baroque da capo format with newer contrasting thematic structures. Okay, that is a bit of musicological academic evaluation, but it can be said that he was one of the premiere composers in the genre for a couple of decades early on in the 18th century. This work was composed for the Teatro delle Dame in Rome in 1738, where it was received with some success. This set of discs itself comes from a live performance at the Bayreuth Baroque Opera festival in 2020, and one presumes that there might be a DVD version out there. The booklet notes have a plethora of pictures from the performance, all in modern staging and dress, which show that it must have been a fun production to watch. Here, however, the music predominates, allowing for Porpora’s rich score to emerge without the visual effects.

The work surrounds the issues of Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, who had two heirs by two wives. One can already see that this is a problem, for the eldest, Lothar, was already a co-regent, but soon thereafter the youngest, Charles (nicknamed “The Bald,” hence the title of the opera), was to inherit about half the territories of the empire, even though they technically belonged to Lothar. This opera is thus a bit of a family rumble in three acts. In act I, Lothar expects his stepmother Judith to pay him respect, using this to clear out the inheritance of Louis for his younger half-brother. His major domo Asprando is to tell people that Charles is actually a bastard born of an adulterous affair with Judith’s courtier Berardo. Judith, meanwhile, wants to pull the family together by marrying Gildippe, a daughter of an earlier marriage, to Adalgiso, Lothar’s son. This does not really go over well, and in the second scene Berardo tells Judith of the intrigues going on, and his reward is to marry her daughter Eduige. Lothar finally comes clean and in anger Judith tells Gildippe to break off her engagement. Asprando tries to manipulate the situation in the third scene, and his efforts are rewarded when Lothar calls Charles illegitimate. In act II, Gildippe fails to follow her mother’s commands, while Adalgiso and Lothar argue about how the inheritance ought to be divided. Asprando, meanwhile, hands over Charles to Lothar for imprisonment, while Judith heaps abuse on Asprando for his betrayal of the family. She raises an army to take control, attacking Lothar’s castle, but when he threatens to heave Charles into the Rhine if the forces do not withdraw, Adalgiso promises Judith to save her son. Act II opens with Ediuge thanking Berardo for his constancy, and when an argument between him and Asprando breaks out, they agree to settle the affair in a joust. In the final scene, Adalgiso fails to extract Charles from his father, becoming a hostage himself as surety. Meanwhile, Lothar has lost his battle and to save himself returns Charles to Judith. Thereafter follows a scene where Lothar threatens to kill her son, but the latter is saved by Adalgiso. His bravery causes a change of heart in Lothar, and all sort of ends happily for all the couples.

This is pretty complex, but then this seems to put the fun into dysfunction for this royal family. As for the music, the succession of arias is less allegorical than directly focused on the convoluted family squabble; indeed, the only non-singing role here is that of the child Charles, presumably not yet bald. To approach the music, one must realize that it is basically only strings accompanying the arias; only in the rather spritely overture and the finales does Porpora use woodwinds and brass. In the overture the tempo is lively, and the music speaks to the power or the royalty with trumpet and drum punctuation. Each of the characters has his or her own special aria, with the stereotypical styles. Lothar’s first aria (“Vade nello splendore”) is a rather pompous minuet, but the voice enters on the expected mezzo di voce and then has some tortuous coloratura (as one might expect the prima uomo to have). But Asprano’s aria “Col passiagier talora” is even more of a display piece, with both trumpets and horns (no timpani) outlining the fierce coloratura. The longest aria of the first act is Gildippe’s “Se nell’amico nido,” which is highly lyrical and floats along with easy passagework. Giuditta’s “Vorresti a me” launches itself with a distinctive fury, The act concludes with Adalgiso’s powerful and arrogant “Saggio Nocchier,” with the full brass section accompanying some fabulous and gripping coloratura, a true tour de force vocally. The second act likewise has a series of display arias, such as Berardo’s “Per voi sul campo,” with its tumbling lines in the horns before his tortuous virtuoso display. Once again, Adalgiso gets the last word in the act with a powerful aria (“Spesso di nubi”) with imperious brass writing and dramatic coloratura. The third act is the resolution, and a lovely aria by Berardo (“Su la fatal arena”), with oboes doubling the strings, has this character filled with bright optimism in the decisive theme. The duet “Dimmi che mami” is soft and sentimental. Lothar’s “So che tiranno” is a lively and fast-paced aria with the requisite difficult coloratura, and of course it all ends with a gigantic final chorus (of principals) with full orchestra color.

The music throughout is largely devoted to the display each singer brings, and as such conductor George Petrou must maintain a good pace. Apart from a bit of muddiness in the brass, the remainder of the orchestra performs with good precision and intonation. The singers are all first-rate. Max Cencic’s Lothar is spot on in terms of coloratura, while Franco Fagioli’s Adalgiso has a nice, almost transparent voice. Both Julia Leszhnova and Suzanne Jerosme have equally flexible voices, but the tenor of Petr Nekoranec is precisely the sort of powerful and spot on one would desire in his role as Asprando. In short, this is a terrific disc and worthy of the Porpora revival. While one might miss the visuals of a DVD, given the hints in the booklet, the audio production does it full credit. This is a good bit of music that shows the glory of the opera seria. Bertil van Boer


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