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Vivica Genaux and Simone Kermes: “Rival Queens”

spacer Music by Bononcini, Hasse, Porpora and others. Cappella Gabetta, Gabetta. Texts and translations. Sony 88843023682


The legendary rivalry of sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni makes a clever theme for a clutch of operatic excerpts. In fact, it has already been done, by Emma Kirkby and Catherine Bott for a 1997 Hyperion release. But that album was all Handel, and the most important aspect of this new disc is that it is virtually a festival of little-known music. Twelve of the fifteen tracks are billed as premiere recordings, and two of the ten composers were new to me. (How the ninety operas of Antonio Pollarolo have managed to lie low for so long is a puzzlement.) The music trumps any idea of rivalry, in fact, and the spirit is more of cooperation. Genaux’s long-term advocacy for the music of Hasse has her inviting Kermes to join her in two Hasse duets, while Kermes, who has been out in front with Porpora’s music, brings Genaux in for a third duet. The Porpora duet, for Ariadne and Theseus, turns out to be not particularly distinguished. But a duet from Hasse’s Cleofide finds not only the two singers but the orchestration differentiating the characters.

The preponderance of barn-burning arias would make this an exhausting recording for a single sitting. When Kermes starts a calmer aria from Giacomelli’s Scipione in Cartagine Nuova, it is balm to the ear, but the B section turns out to be another pummeling, one that is hardly supported by the text. Her persona in live performance, an almost punk, confrontational presentation, is less individual on recordings. It must be said that when she embarks on one of her hell-for-leather performances, as here in an aria from Hasse’s Artaserse, she does not let up. Her ornamentation and her cadenzas take her twice as high as a high F-sharp in a Porpora aria, a note that did not even exist on the keyboard instruments of the day. (She does also throw in a trick low note in an aria by Leo.) The art of Kermes, which is exciting if not much else, is more easily enjoyed in smaller doses, as in an effective traversal of a Bononcini aria.

Genaux has more arrows in her quiver. She is certainly capable of fusillades of notes, but more often than not, as in a Vinci aria from Ifigenia in Tauride, the flamboyant ornamentation maintains some sense of printed melody. (This is coupled with some neatly encouraging continuo playing from the Cappella Gabetta.) I haven’t always been able to get as excited as Genaux does about every one of the Hasse arias that she has exhumed, but the one from Issipile that she offers here wins admiration for the impeccable way it is sung, with a smile in the voice. The violins in the orchestra seem inspired by her as well, keeping a vocal quality even in the quickest notes. But if there is no real sense of competition between Kermes and Genaux, there is a question of whether they have to compete with all of the virtuoso singers of the Baroque revival. Genaux starts her Pollarolo aria with a hard-earned mastery of legato singing, the sort of thing that would make no one long for her to do anything else. But the ornamentation on the da capo, plus a barrage of extra harpsichord twiddles, is ultra-busy with new melodies. The aria sounds more like an elaborate set of Rossinian variations than a da capo. Yet is there really anything better in opera today than Genaux singing a simple legato line? spacer


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