OK—he’s one of those guys who occupy a real niche. Though he was born just a year after Bach, and though he got around a lot more than Bach, and though he was arguably much more famous than Bach (especially as a composer), Nicola Porpora is so unknown that the computer—or the program Word—has red-squiggled him. But even Word knows Johann Sebastian Bach.
And if you know Porpora, it’s probably because of one aria, from the movie Farinelli. And the aria? Alto Giove—and every time I hear it, I fall in love with all over again. It’s a typical aria meant to showcase the singer—in this case the castrato’s—ability to sing long, sustained melodic lines. Listen to the amazing counter tenor Philippe Jaroussky start the opening note so softly he’s barely discernable, swell it gradually, and then reduce to its opening softness. One note like could bring down the house. Oh, and establish you as a very, very well off man after a distinguished career. And at the age of 35, Jaroussky has scaled heights every bit as dazzling as did Farinelli and Caffarelli, his counterparts 300 years ago.
And who was Porpora? He was born in Naples in 1686, and achieved fame for two things—as a composer and as a voice teacher. In fact, Porpora taught the greatest voices of his age—besides Farinelli and Caffarelli, mentioned above, there was also Salimbeni—and he also wrote arias that were uniquely tailored for the individual singer. But let another extraordinary singer, Cecilia Bartoli, speak:
Besides writing stupendously difficult but exciting music, Porpora spent three months teaching composition to his most distinguished student: Joseph Haydn. And Haydn’s account of it is revealing: “there was no lack of asino, coglione, birbante (ass / cullion / rascal) and pokes in the ribs, but I put up with it all, for I profited greatly from Porpora in singing, in composition, and in the Italian language.”
Porpora, in fact, became so famous that he was hired to establish a rival opera house in London. And his rival? Georg Frederich Handel. It has to be said—Handel walked away from the battle unscarred, whereas Porpora went into bankruptcy. Still, if you’re going to lose, you could do worse than lose to Handel.
Porpora then fled to Dresden, where he locked horns with the preeminent German composer Johann Adolph Hasse. After that, it was Vienna, and finally a return home to Naples.
And then he was old, and his music? No longer in fashion—it was too florid, too ornate. By 1760, the age of classicism had started—it was to be the world of Mozart and Haydn, not a 74 year old man. Porpora’s last opera, Camilla, was a flop, and when Porpora died in 1768, he was penniless. And his famous students, Farinelli and Caffarelli? Living a very nice life indeed in retirement. A subscription concert had to be organized to bury Porpora.
Throughout his life, he had worked hard. He left behind, Wikipedia reports, four dozen operas, a mass, a vespers, and violin and cello sonatas. Oh, and this gem—the cello concerto in G Major