A last minute change to this recital of arias by Nicola Porpora saw a series of Vivaldi concerti replace Porpora's own overtures as orchestral interludes. A logical switch as Vivaldi and Porpora were colleagues at Venice's Ospedale della Pieta, the best of the four orphanages whose female musicians were the pride of eighteenth-century Europe and this change presented a good opportunity to compare the works of two composers who do not enjoy an equal standing today.

Sunday night's recital was based around highlights from countertenor Franco Fagioli's new disc of Porpora arias; this follows the recent release of a similar collection by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies suggesting a possible renaissance for Porpora on disc.

Franco Fagioli © Julian Laidig
Franco Fagioli
© Julian Laidig
The texts for the arias performed were almost exclusively written by Pietro Trapassi, alias Metastasio, whose operas were set over 800 times by composers all over Europe until long after his death. His reputation ensured competition amongst local composers to present the first musical rendering of his libretti, however, as productions rarely transferred there was frequently little value in publication. The arresting opening of the first aria, Se tu la reggi al volo, both brought to mind Vivaldi and made me think of the wealth of music, particularly operatic, from this period that is still waiting for a contemporary platform. 

The Academia Montis Regalis, directed by Alessandro de Marchi from the harpsichord produced one of the most impressive sounds I have heard from a baroque ensemble. Essentially a string quartet with basso continuo augmented by two oboes, their playing was incredibly precise with beautifully judged dynamic variation. This precision was matched by the Argentinian countertenor whose near-baffling agility and range brought to mind Cecilia Bartoli. However, the tone of his voice does lack some warmth and purity and sometimes the extreme vocal fireworks did feel like an attempt to obscure the weaker facets of his voice. 

The arias presented were all of high quality and made a strong case for further exploration of Porpora's oeuvre. A particular highlight was Gia si desta la tempesta, a storm aria complete with extremely challenging scale runs with a high-lying melodic line which suited Fagioli's voice. The tender Vorrei spiegar l'affano brought to mind the very best arias from Handel's Italian operas. Many of these works proved difficult to find online to revisit, and I was concious throughout of the benefits of the da capo structure, where the first section of the aria is repeated at the end, employed in all of these works and allowing a chance to fully appreciate each piece amidst the relentlessly elaborate lines. 

The inclusion of works by Vivaldi provided a welcome opportunity for members of the ensemble to take the spotlight in works of equal virtuosity. Pier Luigi Fabrietti excelled in Vivaldi's Concerto in F for oboe, strings and continuo and Giovanna Barbati gave an engaging performed of Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in C Minor. Two further brief orchestral works resulted in a satisfyingly full and varied concert.

The quality and integrity of the music making was enhanced by the sense of performance which was almost as Italianate as the music, Fagioli employing a lot of physicality as he sang. He received a rapturous reaction from the crowd throughout and performed with a commanding stage presence that lent an extra air of authenticity to the evening, as the original performers of these works would have been the stars of their day.

The da capo format normally follows a simple pattern where the first section is presented in a relatively straight-forward manner, the performer then uses the repeat to decorate the melodic line with complicated and impressive ornamentation to demonstrate their skill. Occasionally, Fagioli added so many small turns and superfluous notes to the first iteration of the words that there was no sense of balance and it felt over the top. Furthermore, had I not had the words printed in front of me I would have not had the opportunity to try and decipher them the first time around. That said, this was an enlightening evening of highly accomplished performances where a strong case was made for these rarely performed works.