Nicola Antonio Porpora
1686 – 1768
A celebrated composer and singing teacher, Porpora’s ability to set the Italian language to music was internationally acknowledged during his lifetime.
In a career that spanned almost seventy years Porpora worked mainly in Naples, Rome, Venice, London, Dresden and Vienna. He was a maestro at three of the Conservatorii in Naples, maestro di coro at the three main Venetian Ospedale, formed an opera company to rival Handel in London, became Ober-Kapellmeister to the Electoress of Saxony and was internationally celebrated. His output was large, mostly vocal music including more than 40 operas, 12 serenatas, 4 pasticcios, 14 sacred operas or oratorios, around 135 secular cantatas, 40 sacred choral works, 7 masses, 9 solo motets, 13 Marian antiphons as well as various lamentations and duets. His instrumental output was small, most notably a G major cello concerto, F major cello sonata and his opus 2 Sinfonie da camera (London 1736). Despite his success and international fame during his lifetime, Porpora’s life ended in poverty.
The Neapolitan composer Nicola Antonio Porpora (1686–1768) “…Porpora’s Cantatas particularly the Recitatives, are still regarded in Italy as models of perfection for narrative Music…”
“The Cantatas of Nicolo (sic) Porpora have been always much esteemed, on account of the excellence of their Recitatives, and the good taste and truly vocal style of the airs…” (1)
Porpora was born on the 17th of August in Naples, the son of Carlo and Caterina Porpora. Porpora’s father was a Neapolitan bookseller. He was enrolled in the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesu Cristo (2) in September of 1696 where it is assumed that his first composition teacher was Greco. By 1699 he was likely to have been earning his keep as a student teacher as his tuition fees were waived from this time.
In 1708 he received his first commission, for an opera L’Aggrippina, which was a success, however it was to be some time before he received another opportunity to write an opera. In fact it wasn’t until 1711 that his opera Flavio Anicio Olibrio was performed during Carnival. The libretto states that he was appointed at this time as the maestro di capella to Prince Phillip of Hesse-Darmstadt, the General of the Austrian army in Naples.
In 1713 Porpora is described in the libretto to his Basilio re d’Oriente as maestro di capella to the Portuguese Ambassador to Rome, in 1715 he is appointed maestro at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio (3) and in 1716 receives an honorary title from Prince Phillip who was by now the Imperial Governor of Mantua. In 1717 tragedy strikes and Porpora’s father and elder brother die. His responsibilities immediately grow and he begins his work as music teacher in earnest, both at the Conservatorio and privately, in order to support the remaining members of his family.
In Naples at this time the operatic scene was ‘towered over’ by the Sicilian composer Alessandro Scarlatti (4) who had been working there since the beginning of the century. In an atmosphere dominated by cliques and the Roman Accademia Arcadiana it was difficult for Porpora to develop an audience, however with Scarlatti’s departure in 1719 the chances for opera production grew and by the end of year Porpora’s Faramondo premiered for the Empress Elisabeth’s name day. He composed a further opera for Elisabeth’s birthday Angelica in 1720, and in 1721 Gli orti esperidi to libretti by the young Pietro Metastasio. Farinelli, then aged 16, made his debut in the latter.
Porpora’s fame grew during this time as he was becoming known in Rome as an opera composer. His Eumene is premiered at the Roman Teatro Alibert and he was invited back to the Alibert, with Farinelli, for the following two years. Porpora was by now so confident of his success as a composer that he resigned from the Conservatorio in 1722.
He toured Germany and Austria in 1724 where only one opera, Damiro e Pitia, was performed, the Emperor apparently thought his music was too florid and ornate and he returned to Italy where he was highly productive, composing Didone abbandonata (Metastasio) for Reggio nell’Emilia and in 1725 Ezio and Semiramide riconosciuta (Metastasio) for the Teatro S Giovanni Gristostomo in Venice. Whilst in Venice he was appointed ‘maestro del pio Ospedale degli’Incurabili‘ (5) the fact of which was noted in the libretto to one of his most successful operas Sifaceand it is here that he settled for some time.
The first of Porpora’s two great rivalries developed here with Leonardo Vinci, another Neapolitan, when they both produced operas at the same theatres in Venice and Rome. Vinci, however, died at the end of 1727.
The lack of conflict was not to last very long as, in 1730, whilst Porpora was absent in Rome, Hasse (6) had great operatic success in Venice. The ensuing rivalry was to continue for many years. Musical highlights of this period included the operas Tamerlano, Poro, Annibale, Germanico in Germania and Issipile, the Cantata: da recitarsi nel Palazzo Apostolico la notte del SS Nataleand the oratorio Sanctus Petrus Urseolus and his Mass in A major.
London beckoned in 1733 with an invitation from the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ to take on Handel at the King’s Theatre. The first of Porpora’s operas to be performed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre was Adrianna in Naxo (7) which was a great success and used many of Handel’s former singers including Senesino, Montagnana and Cuzzoni (who only arrived in Spring 1734). During his 3 London years Porpora completed 4 more operas, Ferdinando, Temistofle, Meride, and Arianna, an oratorio David e Bersabea and a serenata La festa d’Imeneo. He also published his opus 1 cantatas, dedicated to the Prince of Wales, and his Sinfonie da camera opus 2.
Despite having an ‘all-star cast’, which included Farinelli who joined in 1734, the ‘Opera of the Nobility’ under Porpora did not establish a clear superiority over Handel’s company and he left England for Venice in 1736, shortly before the collapse of both his and Handel’s opera companies. Curiously, Porpora seems to have been regarded as of secondary importance to Senesino by the ‘Opera of the Nobility’. Lincoln’s Inn Fields opera house was called Senesino’s house or The Prince of Wales’ house, never Porpora’s.
Return to Venice
Upon his return to Venice he was once again appointed maestro at the Incurabili in Hasse’s absence and the next two years were spent teaching and working on the operas Lucio Papirio for Carnival 1737, and Rosbale for performance in the Teatro S Giovanni Grisostomo as well as a commission for a Roman opera Carlo il calvo performed in the Spring of 1738 in the Teatro Alibert.
Shortly afterwards he returned to Naples to fulfil a commission to write a work for the King’s birthday, to be performed in the Teatro S Carlo, the result of which was a second version of La Semiramide riconosciuta, performed in January 1739. His return to Naples prompted the authorities at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto 8 to appoint him maestro di capella and he received commissions for operas from both the Carlo and comic theatres. Il barone di Zampano, Il trionfo di Camilla, Tiridate, Il trionfo del valore were the results.
These were almost the last operas Porpora was to write for the Italian theatres, finally stopping altogether with the production of Statira at the Teatro S Giovanni Grisostomo during Carnival 1742, after he had moved to Venice as maestro del coro at the Ospedale della Pietà.
However, later that year he took leave to go to London for premiere of his Temistocle at the Kings Theatre in the Haymarket (22 Feb 1743). Upon his return he began giving singing lessons at the Ospedaletto where he was appointed maestro del coro in 1744, a particularly prolific year for motets and other liturgical works. At the Ospedaletto he had the advantage of extremely gifted students and his writing at the time clearly demonstrates this. 9
In addition to and possibly in order to supplement his work at the Ospedaletto Porpora applied for the position of maestro di capella at the Neapolitan court. He submitted all the required materials but was unable to attend the court in Naples to complete application as his position in Venice wouldn’t allow his absence. As a result he was not appointed.
Dresden & Vienna
Instead Porpora became singing teacher to the Electoral Princess of Saxony, Maria Antonia Walpurgis in Dresden in 1747, once again moving to follow the available work. However, as in Venice, he met his rival Hasse at the court in Saxony and the rivalry was further fired by the presence of the great soprano Faustina Bordoni (10) (Hasse’s wife!). Porpora had taken as protégée the young soprano Regina Mingotti (11) and conflict arose between the two singers. However, despite the difficulties, Porpora was appointed Kapellmeister ‘Until further notice’ in 1748 (Hasse was Ober-Kapellmeister) before receiving his pension in 1752 whereupon he left Dresden for Vienna.
In Vienna he renewed his acquaintance with Metastasio and was possibly going to set libretto of Metastasio’s new L’Isola disabitata but was prevented by illness from doing so. He gave singing lessons to many, including Metastasio’s protégéé Marianne von Martinez, and the composer Joseph Haydn became valet, pupil and accompanist for singing lessons. Haydn in fact claims to have learnt ‘…the true fundamentals of composition…’ from Porpora.
In 1759 Porpora’s Dresden pension was stopped due to the invasion of Saxony during the Seven Years War and it was at this time that Metastasio wrote to Farinelli, who was at the court of the King of Spain, to urge assistance for Porpora. He was appointed as ‘another maestro di capella‘ at the Naples Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto where he had been employed some 20 years before and he accepted a commission for the Teatro S Carlo. For this he reworked his earlier Il trionfo di Camilla for the Carnival but this time it was a failure. In 1760 he was also appointed to a position at the Conservatorio di S Onofrio, but by September of 1761 he had resigned from both appointments. He spent his final years in Naples, dying in poverty. Following his death, the musicians of Naples performed gratis at his church of Ecce Homo in Naples where he was buried on March 3rd, 1768.
1.Anon. From the fly leaf of British Library Manuscript Add 29484.
2.Also the school attended by Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Francesco Durante, Gian Battista Pergolesi, and Nicolò Jommelli
3.S Onofrio was established in the early 1600s and by the end of the century was a major centre for musical education in that area of Italy (see above for fellow students). It’s principal function was to train the new ‘evirati’ or castrated singers made necessary (and popular) by the Papal instruction harking back to Saint Paul ‘Mulieres in ecclesis taceant’. Young boys would be sent to the Conservatorio to study voice and one particular instrument as well as musical composition and stage technique. ‘Graduating’ between the ages of 16 and 20 the young castrati would then move into either a church or secular career. Among the most famous were Farinelli, Caffarelli, Gizziello, Reginella, Matteuccio, Niccolino, Senesino among others.
4.For more information see The Scarlatti Project at http://www.scarlattiproject.com
5.See Denis Arnold’s article Orphans and Musicians in Venice – describing the unique system of social support in 18th-century Venice that brought great economic, social and cultural benefits.
6.Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783), German composer; pupil of Alessandro Scarlatti. Hasse was court composer at Dresden (1731–63). He wrote masses, oratorios and cantatas, sonatas, and concertos but was known chiefly for over 60 operas, written in a thoroughly Italianized style. They include Artaserse (first version, 1730), which was written for his wife, Faustina Bordoni Hasse, 1700–1781, one of the most celebrated singers of the period.
7.Probably put on in direct competition with Handel’s Arianna in Creta, HWV 32 which had its first performance on January 26th, 1734.
8.The oldest of Naples’ Conservatorii S Maria di Loreto was founded in 1537 by the Spanish Protonotary Bishop Giovanni di Tapia
9.The solo vocal lines in both the choral and solo works are virtuosic in the extreme whilst still ‘conforming’ to the Venetian taste for a style emphasizing melody with a simple homophonic accompaniment (usually for strings and continuo). Vocal lines acquired a more lyrical quality whilst at the same time becoming more intricate and highly ornamented. It may be argued that Porpora was one of the composers chiefly responsible for the trend towards this increased embellishment in vocal melody and his skills as a singing teacher and intimate knowledge of the voice no doubt enabled him to exploit the newly developed skills of his performers and students, writing passages both more sustained and more florid than previously attempted.
10.Daughter of the merchant Paolo Bordoni, early study probably at the Conservatorio dei Mendicanti in Venice, first appearance at 16 years old. Contracted to Florence, Venice, Bologna, Munich, Vienna. In 1726 went to London to join Handel’s opera, there she was in the enormous scandal fight on open stage with her rival Cuzzoni. 1730 marriage with J A Hasse. 1731 the couple arrive in Dresden then journeys to Rome, Turin, Venice, Naples. 1734 fixed contract in Dresden, nevertheless she undertook frequent journeys to Italy. In 1756 she performed for the last time in Dresden.
11.Regina Mingotti née. Valentini (1728 – 1807) Daughter of a German officer, educated from 1729 in the Ursuline Convent in Graz, remaining until the age of 14 receiving singing lessons from the Mother Abbess. She married in 1747 the Venetian Impresario Pietro Mingotti and sang in his company. She was a pupil of Porpora’s and was employed at the Dresden court. Her first appearance in Dresden was as Corinna in Porpora’s Filandro.