Cantatas Opus 1
Stile Galante, Stefano Aresi
148:48 (2 CDs in a card triptych)
Glossa GCD 923513
At the end of a note on performance practice, Stefano Aresi warns that we should not attempt to listen to all twelve of the chamber cantatas that comprise Nicola Porpora’s op. 1 in one go. ‘Rather’, he winningly continues, ‘to enjoy the precious colours and flavours of this music, a slow approach, as to the appreciation of twelve glasses of different fine wines, is recommended. These works give of their best taken one by one, with plenty of time between for discussion, reading, and appreciating the joys of life’. And he is of course quite right, though sadly I doubt many people listen to their CDs in that way. One might also add that such is the diversity of form and style, and, on this recording the use of four different singers, that it is perfectly possible to listen without musical inebriation to all the cantatas in succession, as I did on one of the occasions I listened to them.
The cantatas were published in 1735, a period when Porpora was working in London at the invitation of Handel’s rivals, the Opera of the Nobility. They bear a dedication to Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales and the leading supporter of the Nobility. Work on them possibly started before Porpora arrived in England, but the set was almost certainly largely composed in London, several cello obbligato cello parts suggesting due attention to Prince Frederick’s interest in that instrument. Six of the cantatas are for soprano, six for alto, which originally almost certainly meant male castrati, and all have texts on Arcadian topics by Metastasio. Following publication they became immensely popular, achieving a fame that highly unusually endured well into the following century, as is testified by a pupil of Porpora’s, who wrote of them that, ‘even nowadays, after 70 or more years […] they are still sung and admired, and learned masters give them to their pupils to study’. A new edition was published in Paris as late as 1820.
Such rare success is not hard to understand. The settings are notable for the gracious melodic fluency that has become increasingly familiar the more we come to know the composer’s operas. There is no formulaic approach, each text bearing evidence of having been carefully considered in the light of its particular poetic qualities. Recitatives, sometimes, as in the highly expressive narrative that lies at the heart of Cantata VII, are not infrequently lengthy. While adhering to the standard alternation of aria and recitative, the changes are constantly rung, opening now with an aria, now with recitative, while cantata VIII starts by reverting to earlier practice by enclosing recitative between a seamless opening and closing arioso. Cantata XII, the most seriously dramatic of the set, includes a striking passage in the style of accompanied recitative. Porpora even varies the style of accompaniment, the marvellous Cantata IX having an obbligato keyboard part rather than continuo.
Although superficially the texts speak of an idealised Arcadian world of nymphs and shepherds, we smile indulgently on them at the risk of self-mockery. A more thoughtful reading reveals that Metastasio is putting into words emotions that speak of a timeless truth: the suspicion of infidelity incorporated in the overwhelming longing for the absent loved one (Cantata III), a light-hearted but nonetheless sincere apology for being unable to return love (Cantata X), and so forth. It is a measure of the success of the performances that we are constantly drawn into the beauty of the texts as well as that of the music, an achievement almost certainly made possible not only by the use of Italian singers, Francesca Cassinari and Emanuela Galli (sopranos), and Giuseppina Bridelli and Marina De Liso (altos), but the involvement of two(!) language coaches. The technique of all four singers is excellent, displaying a firm command of the demands made by the sometimes florid writing and attempting trills with varying degrees of success (Cassinari is particularly good). But above all it is the intelligent musical approach to these splendid cantatas as refined and sophisticated chamber works rather than some kind of mini-opera that makes these performances such unalloyed pleasure throughout. The singers are given excellent support by cellist Agnieszka Oszańka and Andrea Friggi (harpsichord), and I was grateful to note that Aresi’s notes dismiss any other possibility (such as the inclusion of theorbo) as alien to the aesthetic of the music. My only slight criticism of this near-unfailingly rewarding set is the sense that one or two of the slower arias might have been given more forward momentum.