Iestyn Davies: "Porpora Cantatas"
Arcangelo, J. Cohen. Texts and translations. Hyperion CD A67894
The artistic stock of Nicola Porpora (1686–1768) is rising, after centuries of neglect in the shadow of Vivaldi and Handel — even after the Baroque revival of the past few decades. This past July, France's Beaune Festival offered a well-reviewed new staging of his 1729 La Semiramide Riconosciuta, a vehicle for one of Porpora's great pupils, the castrato Farinelli. Karina Gauvin and Alan Curtis released a spectacular collection of the composer's virtuoso arias on ATMA Classique in 2009. Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Genaux, Philippe Jaroussky and Simone Kermes have all recorded his challenging music.
Hyperion's new disc, featuring rising British countertenor Iestyn Davies, makes available beautiful renditions of the final six of the dozen chamber cantatas Porpora supplied in 1735 to the arts-loving Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707–51). Frederick and his three sisters, the children of George II, adored music — Frederick patronized Thomas Arne as well as Porpora — and pursued instruments as highly gifted amateurs. Carlo Vitali's helpful program note helps place these beautiful works in musico-historical and even political context. The texts are widely thought to be the work of the era's preeminent librettist, Pietro Metastasio. Less certainly, but with some clear justification, musicologists suspect that some (or all) of these works may have been created by Farinelli. (While he was in London, the castrato indeed collaborated with the cello- and harpsichord-playing Frederick.) In form, the six cantatas all have two recit/aria pairs; the first aria tends to be slow, the second swifter. All treating on the miseries and adventures of romantic passion, they demand astonishing breath control, mastery of precise coloratura and apt decoration. The arias show lively melodic contours, and the interaction between voice and continuo instruments proves engaging and inventive.
Backed with keen style and alert playing by cellist Jonathan Cohen's eight-member ensemble Arcangelo, Davies rises to the challenge with aplomb. Born in York, Davies grew up in a musical family. After several fine New York appearances with visiting European companies and in New York City Opera's Partenope — plus Britten's Oberon for Houston Grand Opera — Davies made a thoroughly impressive Met debut in November 2011 as Rodelinda's Unulfo. His singing here is graceful and accomplished, sounding far less "churchy" than many of his countertenor compatriots yet not so "operatic" as, say, David Daniels or Bejun Mehta. He commands a wide dynamic palette; the Italian diction, while clear, sounds less "lived in" and inflected than it did in his Unulfo. This December 2010 recording contains almost seventy-eight minutes of music and is highly recommended to lovers of Baroque vocal music in search of both novelty and quality.