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PORPORA: Germanico in Germania

CD Button Bennani, Idrisova, Lezhneva, Nesi; Cenčić, Sancho; Capella Cracoviensis, Adamus. Text and translation. Decca 4831523 (3)

Recordings Germanico Cover 718

NICOLA PORPORA'S Germanico in Germania is the latest Baroque opera seria to get worked over by a conductor who confuses over-caffeination with excitement. There’s little drama, shape or contrast when everything’s so loud and frantic, and the whole work sounds like one long string of agitated arie di tempeste. 

Even without understanding Italian, it’s easy to tell what a Baroque aria is about by the instrumental setup and the vocal writing. Curling passagework, trills and playful lines suggest a bubbling over with joy; rapid scales and arpeggios, leaping between low and high notes, indicate anger; graceful murmuring over pulsing instrumental textures signals contemplation. Porpora’s style often uses quick triplet figures for all these musical mental states, and because he was also a voice teacher (Haydn, Hasse, Caffarelli and Farinelli were among his celebrated students) he crammed each aria of Germanico with technical difficulties and vocal demands not always suited to the dramatic moment. 

The composer is not entirely to blame, though. Conductor Jan Tomasz Adamus’s aggressively high-strung approach pits singer against singer in a circus act, with breakneck tempos, culminating in the three-part shouting match that ends Act II. And it’s everyone for himself in the recitatives, where harpsichord concertos accompany hollered dialogue. 

In the title role, Max Emanuel Cenčić sings with nobility and stylish authority befitting the Roman commander, though he lumbers through recitatives. The orchestra introduction to “Nasce da valle” in Act II is imaginatively, lusciously played. Cenčić doesn’t try to do too much, and the result is magical. Juan Sancho’s tenor provides welcome relief from the treble-dominant cast, but not just for its sonic delight. I’ve long admired Sancho’s dramatic and committed artistry, and as the defiant Segestes, he uses expressive vocal effects to bring out the text. 

As Segestes’s daughters, sopranos Dilyara Idrisova and Julia Lezhneva prioritize an accurate, bland sound, sharing a lack of interest in the concept of dynamics and vocal shading. Both whiz through florid passagework like robots, without nuance or expression. In particular, Lezhneva’s “Se possono i tuoi rai,” in Act III, sounds like a cuckoo clock gone berserk. While Idrisova pronounces Italian with little indication of its meaning, Lezhneva doesn’t even bother with the text. 

In contrast, Hasnaa Bennani is refreshing in the role of the Roman captain Caecina. Even the orchestra relaxes a bit for her easy, graceful singing, and each aria is a delight. With a soft-edged glow, Bennani’s voice displays range and rapidity as well as suppleness, and her musical imagination finds an expressive variety of colors. Mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi’s artistry, commitment and sure sense of style and drama always hit the mark. Taking the soprano role of the opposing ruler, Arminio, she brings power and vibrancy to dramatic moments, with majestic sound and handsome phrasing, particularly at the opera’s high point, “Parto, ti lascio.” Here, she shapes long, expressive lines with inventive ornaments and magnificent high notes both forte and piano.

The horns, featured in the overture and a few arias, bring particular verve to the instrumental playing, which too often is harsh and thin.  —Judith Malafronte 

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