Young countertenor Iestyn Davies makes his much anticipated Hyperion solo debut with an enchanting disc of cantatas from the Italian composer Nicola Porpora. Davies’s luminous tone has a celestial purity and he performs with prodigious technical assurance. Unfazed by the composer’s intricate passagework and elaborate ornamentation, his astonishing breath control creates a seamless melodic line. Davies is accompanied by the ensemble Arcangelo in interpretations that go far beyond historical understanding.
In a productive career that spanned 70 years, Porpora wrote some 135 secular canatas, twelve of which were dedicated to His Royal Highness Frederick Prince of Wales, a great patron of the arts and an amateur musician. Porpora’s ability to set the Italian language to music was widely acknowledged during his lifetime and his music is full of imaginative word painting. Davies’s remarkable skill in characterization, and his innate ability to go straight to the heart of both text and music, make this the perfect affiliation.
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The Prince and the Castrato Cantatas by Nicola Porpora
The National Portrait Gallery in London has an oil painting by Philip Mercier (reproduced on the front cover of this booklet) showing an open-air concert at Kew Gardens around 1733. The distinguished musicians are Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, on the cello, his sister Anne, future Princess of Orange, at the harpsichord and Princess Caroline Elisabeth on the mandolin, while Princess Amelia quietly listens.
After cricket, Frederick’s favourite pastime was music: he was not only the principal patron of the Opera of the Nobility in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in competition with the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, which was under Handel’s thumb, but also a keen amateur performer. On 30 November 1734 the famous castrato Farinelli reported to the Bolognese count Sicinio Pepoli, his lifelong patron: ‘The royal prince of these parts […] does me countless favours of which I should never have dreamt, and from him I expect much of advantage to myself, since we are always together, he playing the cello and I singing.’
These music-making sessions involving the Prince and the castrato, who was able to accompany himself on the harpsichord, could last many hours. Farinelli wrote that he passed the whole of 1 July 1735 in this way with Frederick. It is tempting to imagine that their repertoire included the twelve cantatas by Nicola Porpora that were to appear in print that same year with a eulogistic dedication to Frederick as an ‘Amateur, Owner and most munificent PATRON’ of the fine arts; Porpora may even have composed the cantatas expressly for his former pupil Farinelli in order to gratify their common operatic patron in London. The title page actually speaks of ‘These newly composed vocal works’, even if such a well-worn claim cannot always be taken at face value.
The Neapolitan lawyer Saverio Mattei, a noted polymath and correspondent of Metastasio, wrote to Giuseppe Orlandi, an editor of the poet’s collected works, on 30 May 1784: ‘I am sending you twelve cantatas that I have had copied from the papers of Porpora, who set them to music at the same time as Metastasio wrote them.’ This description hints at close contact between the two men, which—previously to 1735—could have taken place only at three points in the course of their long careers: in Naples in 1719–22; in Rome in 1722–3 (or, less probably, in late 1729 to early 1730); and in Venice in early 1726.
The 1735 London print makes no mention of the author of the cantata texts. This is rather puzzling, since Metastasio’s prestigious post in Vienna as ‘Caesarian Poet’ and the excellent relations between the Habsburgs and the Court of St James would have made his naming appropriate and advantageous. Stranger still, until 1734 Metastasio affected to have little regard for his early cantatas, writing to his Venetian publisher Bettinelli: ‘The cantatas I have penned are not many, and I have never taken care to preserve them.’ Only in 1748, at the behest of the Dresden publisher Walther, did he volunteer to provide ‘a small number of cantatas which, written by me but not retained, are circulating in corrupt form among lovers of poetry; however, these number no more than twelve or fourteen’.
Despite their immaturity and scant acknowledgement by their author, these cantatas are poetically far superior to the average for such verse in the mid-eighteenth century. No editor of the time or modern scholar seriously disputes their authorship. Moreover, the 1735 London score offers a sung text that is substantially correct, matching the ‘literary’ versions of the poems published much later. So presumably their autograph texts had been in Porpora’s possession for a long time—since at least the mid-1720s—before the cantatas came out in print.
The musical setting of the cantatas for alto recorded here (numbered 7–12 in the collection) can be described as a reasonable compromise between the intimate requirements of the chamber cantata and the flamboyant vocal virtuosity of the new ‘Neapolitan’ opera, as popularized between 1733 and 1736 in Porpora’s most successful scores for the London public stage, such as Arianna in Nasso and Polifemo.
Although intricate passagework and elaborate ornamentation are present throughout, sheer acrobatics is not the main issue for the solo singer. With a range stretching from b to e'' flat (exceptionally to e'' natural and f'', thus comparable in modern terms to an average mezzo-soprano), and with intervallic leaps not exceeding one octave, the main emphasis is rather on rapid divisions, rhythmic flexibility and an accomplished breath control enabling the singer to produce long trills on sustained notes (as in the second aria of Cantata No 7), or to deliver those opening messe di voce (as in the second arias of Cantata No 9 and Cantata No 10) whose perfect realization was a sort of style-marker for Porpora’s pupils.
In the accompaniment, the energetic bass line is idiomatic for the cello and sets in relief the vocal part with concertato-like imitations, while notated chordal passages additional to the usual figures stipulate the presence of a harpsichord, probably with further continuo instruments. All manner of compositional devices are deployed in the recitative, from secco through obbligato to arioso, with accurate descriptive effects and hints at word-painting matching the sung text.
A climax for the whole collection occurs in Cantata No 9, which starts with a long obbligato recitative in the guise of a highly dramatic monologue redolent of opera seria. The accompaniment on two separate staves features mercurial tempo changes and a dense harmonic texture. Particularly here, and in the lovely siciliana that follows (‘Nei campi e nelle selve’), the addition of some kind of treble instrument seems unavoidable. However, in most cantatas the enrichment of the basic scoring with one or two violins, a flute or recorder, oboe and bassoon, would be consistent both with period practice and with the pastoral atmosphere gracefully depicted by Metastasio. In Cantata No 8, the future poeta cesareo resorted to the unusual pattern of an opening recitative framed by the repeats of a single quatrain to introduce a comparison between the narrating lover and the mythological character of the nymph Clytie turned into a sunflower (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV, 190–270). If old-fashioned and a little obscure, this passage afforded Porpora the opportunity for a melancholy arioso (or ‘semi-aria’) of heart-rending effect.
Carlo Vitali © 2011