Porpora Il Gedeone
A distinguished figure on the musical scene in the first half of the eighteenth century, the Neopolitan Nicola Porpora had operas produced all over Italy, spent four years in London as a rival to Handel, and taught singing to Farinelli and composition to Haydn. His biblical oratorio Il Gedeone - telling the story of how at God’s behest Gideon liberated Israel from the oppression of the Midianites with the help of a vastly inferior army and a minor miracle or two - was composed in 1737 for performance during Holy Week at the Imperial court in Vienna, where, having left England only the year before, Porpora was perhaps hoping for a job. It thus comes from the time when Handel was first turning his attention from opera to oratorio, but even though there are many similarities of melodic style between the two composers, Porpora shows few signs of recognizing the genre’s expressive potential in the way that Handel did. This is attractive music to be sure; Porpora’s knowledge of singing makes for a natural yet frequently virtuosic vocal style and his accompaniments are inventive, but characterization is not pursued with any great conviction and Handel’s psychological depths are beyond him. The most effective moments here are those depicting the apprehensiveness of certain characters either on the eve of battle or waiting for news of the outcome. The choral writing is sonorous and skilfully written, yet there are only three choruses in the entire work, and in no way do they match Handel’s dramatic ability to encapsulate the hopes and fears of an entire population. With an episodic and often infuriatingly oblique libretto dating from the beginning of the century, this is Italian oratorio in pretty much the same style as it had been for several decades.
The performance is a competent one, especially if (as seems to be the case) it was recorded in one day. Kai Wessel sings the title-role intelligently, though I thought the other countertenor Henning Voss, taking the part of the retainer Fara, actually had a more suitably heroic strength to his singing. The two sopranos - Linda Perillo as Gideon’s wife and Jorg Waschinski as the enemy commander Oreb - both do well, but the tenor and bass lack dramatic incisiveness and the orchestral strings can be a bit weedy. An interesting recording for baroque buffs, but for the general listener, no competition for Handel.R1 '9913101'