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Max Emanuel Cencic: Nicola Porpora Arias 

CD Button Armonia Atenea, Petrou. Decca 483 3235

Recordings Porpora Arias Cover 918
Critics Choice Button 1015

THE ILLUSTRIOUS Neapolitan singing teacher Nicola Porpora (1686–1768) was also a notable composer. The core of his output consisted of more than fifty opere serie,with texts by the best-known librettists of the day. Live performances of these works remain rare, but we can rejoice in all-Porpora CDs by a number of virtuoso countertenors, among them this one by Max Emanuel Cencic. Even if his disc hadn’t included seven world-premiere recordings, it would still merit significant attention, thanks to his exceptional vocalism.

Cencic boasts both the colorful timbre and the superhuman technical prowess for this music. He proves as much in the opening track, an aria from Ezio. The character in question, Valentiniano, singing of an eagle in full flight, must move with terrific speed through bursts of hair-raising coloratura. Here, as in all the other florid arias, Cencic’s accuracy and effortlessness are consistently impressive. Throughout the program, he also brings both warmth and brass to his spectacularly ample chest voice, down to F-sharp below middle C.

Of the many other arie di bravura, most exciting is “Destrier che all’armi usato,” from Poro. In the title hero’s description of a horse running wildly, Cencic excels as much in arpeggiated passages as in scales, the latter astoundingly fleet. Here, as well as in Aeneas’s call to arms from Enea nel Lazio, the upper extreme of the singer’s extensive range is as luscious as his lower octave, not invariably the case elsewhere in this program.

In Porpora’s treatment of the story of Iphigenia in Aulis, Cencic (portraying Agamemnon) displays the only oddity in his singing—a tendency to alter the vowel indiscriminately in his divisions. The fierce “Se rea ti vuole il cielo,” from Carlo il Calvo, shows him not always as expressively varied in his coloratura as one would hear from, say, Cecilia Bartoli in this style. The Bartoli comparison also seems apt in legato numbers, where the Croatian countertenor would on occasion do well to emulate his Italian colleague’s always-vivid textual projection. In an episode from Filandro, Cencic sounds emotionally distanced, although his actual singing is flawless. Loveliest of the quieter pieces is another aria from Carlo il Calvo, “Quando s’oscura il cielo,” which the singer handles very sweetly. How astonishing that this mesmerizing number hasn’t been recorded before!

One aria di sostenuto, from Meride e Selinunte, finds Cencic taking on music for a female character; Ericlea’s anguish emerges strongly in elegant legato phrases. Porpora’s music doesn’t always do a great job of expressing the character (he was hardly a match for Handel as a musical psychologist), but the beauty with which he could sculpt a vocal line is often its own reward. 

The string tone heard from Armonia Atenea isn’t the most mellifluous among today’s early-instrument orchestras (an exception is “Quando s’oscura,” which boasts the necessary lushness), but its adroit technique and sheer incisiveness get the job done. The program note, incorporating comments from Cencic, offers a useful introduction to Porpora, although a few sentences of synopsis to accompany the texts and translations would have been welcome. All in all, this is an exceedingly important addition to the Porpora discography.  —Roger Pines



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