Lava - opera arias from 18th century Naples

Simone Kermes (soprano); Le Musiche Nove/Claudio Osele (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 88697 54121 2)

26 November 2009 4 stars

LavaThis interesting disc is emblematic of (at least) two things: the huge importance of Naples as an operatic centre in the period 1720 – 1750, and the richness and diversity of the composers whose operas were performed there. If we are by now thoroughly used to opera seria in some of Mozart and above all in Handel operas, it comes as a welcome surprise (to this listener, at least) to hear the form so differently exploited by Pergolesi, Porpora, Leo, Vinci and Hasse, just to name the five composers whose arias fill this generous CD. The form may have been inflexible, but the variety within that form is astonishing.

There is another common thread, beside Naples: the texts of almost all the recitatives and arias are by that colossus of libretti writing in the 18th century, Pietro Metastasio. He could clearly turn his hand to any mood, any dramatic situation, from rage aria to plaintive lament, from pastoral idyll to heroic, declamatory resolve. The results, as dusted off, freshened up and recorded here are invigorating: this is a delightful CD, with plenty of little treasures in store for the first-time listener.

I have never heard Leipzig-born Simone Kermes in the opera house, but I should like to – a strikingly good-looking redhead, she is an alert, dramatic soprano with an undoubted gift for role characterisation. The 12 arias recorded here allow her to display considerable versatility. If at times I think she slightly overdoes it, the results are always interesting and the singing often delightful. I have a tip: do not embark on this CD by listening to track one (for reasons to which I shall return) but programme instead track three or track five. Track 3 is by Porpora, 'Se non dovesse il pie' from Flavio Anicio Olibrio, and is a teasing aria with a plucked accompaniment. Kermes produces light and accurate singing, tonally very pure and then with added ornamentation where needed as the aria progresses: the whole conceit reminds me of Cherubino accompanying himself on the guitar in Count Almaviva's house. Then jump to track 5, 'Manca sollecita' from Il Demetrio by Leonardo Leo. This is an absolute gem. Kermes gives her phrasing the utmost delicacy, but combines this with sustained, ravishing long-breathed lines: very little vibrato, no forcing of the voice, muted strings in accompaniment, the whole aria infused with plaintive melancholy. There is a brief middle section whose chord progressions call to mind Orpheus pleading with the Furies in Gluck's version of the legend, but then the slow refrain returns in all its glory.

The longest track of all, just under 15 minutes, is reserved for Pergolesi and his aria 'Lieto cosi talvolta' from Adriano in Siria. It might best be described as a duologue for soprano and oboe with string accompaniment and the talented oboist Michael Bosch does the instrument full justice, with Kermes once again producing a lovely, pure soprano sound. But the music itself does not really go anywhere and the piece as a whole lacks dramatic cogency.

That can certainly not be said of 'Morte amara' from Lucio Papirio by Porpora – it is a hushed, anguished defiance of death and Kermes sings it dramatically, vibrato this time in evidence. This brings me on to the 'other' Kermes, who attacks the faster paced, dramatic arias she is given here with real gusto, emphasising the breathiness in her voice, going down into chest register and almost treating one or two isolated passages as Sprechgesang: the arias by Hasse are all good examples of what I mean. They are real, acted performances and Kermes tries to put these pieces all across in the voice, with heavy aspirates and staccato repeated notes. Some of this is fun but there are times when I think a more judicious approach might have served the material better. Go now to track 1, the aria from L'Olympiade by Pergolesi which I suggested the listener might choose to skip at the outset. The string sound is thin and scrubby, the voice breathy – it makes a suitably mad opener to the whole CD, but takes some getting used to. This is the side of Kermes' artistry I least enjoyed aesthetically, whilst admitting that her sense of incisive attack is splendid, and her determination to put spark and character into her musical roles is admirable.

So the CD serves a clear purpose in bringing otherwise forgotten, and certainly unrecorded music from the heyday of Neapolitan opera into sharp focus. Under the crisp baton of Claudio Osele the small orchestra (one instrument per part) provides alert and lively accompaniment: if the sound is less than lush at times, that is in the nature of the forces here deployed. As a curiosity, the CD would make a great stocking filler for Christmas. I enjoyed it all hugely and shall watch out for Simone Kermes's progress with great interest.

By Mike Reynolds