Nicola Porpora (1686-1768) is one of several eighteenth-century composers of Italian opera seria who have not yet received a true revival, along with Leonardo Vinci, Leonardo Leo, and Johann Adolf Hasse. Porpora has left a mark in music history for two main reasons – firstly because he was the teacher of the celebrated castrato Farinelli, and the other because he was recruited to London in the 1730s by the Opera of the Nobility as a rival to George Frideric Handel. In recent years, some of Porpora’s music has been revived through singers specialising in Baroque music (such as Philippe Jaroussky, Franco Fagioli and Karina Gauvin), who are performing his virtuosic opera arias in concert and on disc. But his full picture as an opera composer remains to be revealed, and stage productions of his operas are few and far between.

Nicola Porpora (Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica, Bologna)
© Public Domain | Wikipedia

This year is the 250th anniversary year of Porpora’s death, but as far as I am aware, it has only been celebrated by one production of his opera, a staging of his 1736 Mitridate (reviewed here) at Schloss Schwetzingen which opened in December and just finished its run. Over the years, there have been occasional stagings of his operas, including recently Germanico in Germania in Innsbruck (2015) and Arianna in Nasso in Vienna’s Kammeroper (2017), but I would love to see a production at a top-class house with excellent singers and judge his music on his own merits.

Meanwhile on disc, a world premiere recording of his opera Germanico in Germania, with a superb cast led by countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, has just been released (Cencic is also releasing a Porpora aria album soon). It’s 3 CDs and 3 hours 37 minutes, but it has some gorgeous music and singing, and is highly recommended.

From Naples to London

Born in Naples in 1686 – almost exact contemporary of J.S. Bach and Handel – Porpora was trained in one of the city’s famous music conservatories, Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù. His first opera Aggripina was performed in Naples in 1708 (it was revived in Birmingham last year). At that time, the operatic scene in Naples was still under the dominance of Alessandro Scarlatti, so it was some years before Porpora was able to establish himself there.

In 1720, he made his mark with the serenata Angelica, a work that signalled the beginning of his collaboration with the librettist Metastasio – in fact, this was the poet’s very first opera libretto – as well as with his young pupil Farinelli. Thereafter, Porpora was increasingly in demand around Europe, travelling to direct his operas in Rome, Venice, Florence, Vienna and eventually London, while holding teaching posts in Naples and Venice in between.

His compositional output was considerable: mostly vocal music including more than 40 operas, 12 serenatas, 14 sacred operas/oratorios, as well as over 100 secular cantatas and 40 sacred choral works. Most of his operas were composed in the typical eighteenth century style of opera seria, constructed from alternating recitatives and da capo arias. His operatic arias are particularly known for the spectacular vocal fireworks, and he is generally recognised for setting the trend towards more embellishment in vocal melody. Of course this would not have happened without his virtuoso protégées such as Farinelli and Cafarelli who were trained by him privately from an early age in technique, agility, and control of voice. The aria “In braccio mille furie” from Semiramide riconosiuta (above), performed by Farinelli in Venice in 1729, will give one an idea of his phenomenal technique.

But Porpora was equally a fine melodist, and was capable of producing sublime, show-stopping lyrical arias such as Aci’s aria “Alto Giove” from his London opera Polifemo (1734).

Porpora vs Handel

The news of Porpora and Farinelli’s fame in Italy in the 1720s had reached London, where a group of opera-loving nobles were trying to set up a new opera company to compete with Handel who was dominating the scene. An emissary was sent to recruit them, and Porpora arrived in London in 1733, joined by Farinelli the following season.

In the three seasons as music director of the new company, Opera of the Nobility, Porpora composed five operas for the London stage (Arianna in Nasso, Enea nel Lazio, Polifemo, Ifigenia in Aulide, Mitridate) as well as an oratorio and a serenata. In addition to Farinelli, he had at his disposal Cuzzoni and Senesino who had defected from the Handel camp. He also directed operas of other composers in between.

Musically, Porpora achieved a certain degree of success in London, in particular with Arianna in Nasso in 1733 and Polifemo in 1735 (based on the Acis and Galatea story), both of which clocked up 20+ performances. However, Handel hit back in 1735 with Ariodante and Alcina, which turned the tide in his favour. However, financially neither succeeded and both companies made losses. After three seasons, the Opera of the Nobility closed in 1736 and Porpora returned to Italy. He lived for another 30 odd years, although his popularity as opera composer declined in the 1740s. He took up various teaching jobs in Venice, Dresden and then in Vienna, where Haydn became one of his pupils. His last years in Naples were reportedly spent in considerable poverty.

Porpora today

There is no doubt that Porpora was highly regarded as an opera composer in his time. 250 years after his death, his operas surely deserve a proper revival – not just his pyrotechnic arias, attractive as they are both for the singers and the listeners. The works may not appeal to us in the same way as Handel’s best operas, with which we are now so familiar with, but comparing Porpora’s operas with Handel’s is not necessarily helpful because Handel’s style did not represent the Italian opera seria on the Continent.

Perhaps a better understanding of the musical and social milieu that Porpora and his contemporaries were working in Italy (Naples, Venice and Rome each had its own vibrant operatic scene), and of the typical features of the Italian opera seria in vogue at the time, will help us to appreciate Porpora’s operas on their own merits.