One song I’m very fond of, for a whole bunch of reasons, is Ricardo Broschi’s “Son qual nave ch’agitata.” It is a song like many others in a way. It picks up the metaphor of a ship, lost on the sea in a storm. The calm B-part is describing reaching safety, which means the shore, and the beloved one.
It’s not an unusual subject for an aria. A ship at sea in a storm has been a very popular allegory for the human soul and its emotional state in Baroque and even after.
- Siam navi all’ondi algenti (A. Vivaldi)
- Vo solcando un mar crudele (J.C. Bach)
- Da tempeste (G.F. Handel)
- Sperai vicino il lido (Gluck, Vivaldi, Mozart,… how many versions are there?)
One of the most famous arias picking up the subject is most probably Mozart’s “Come scoglio.”
So why do I like the “Son qual nave,” of all possibilities?
It is a weird piece, one of Broschi’s best, most probably, but — he was no genius, in my perception. The aria — written to fit the voice of his brother, known as Farinelli, the famous castrato — is a show-piece. It doesn’t have the emotional depth of Vivaldi’s or Handel’s music. Broschi illustrates the overall subject wonderfully. “A ship at sea, in a storm. Hell, yeah!” You can almost see Broschi, head-banging, when he was sitting at the harpsichord writing it. Still, for him, apparently, a storm is fun. Neither does it have the accuracy of description that Vivaldi’s music has, all those lovely descriptive details. Do you notice how the violins in Vivaldi’s aria paint a figure that make you fear the ship might be capsizing any moment?
Broschi’s cliffs are rather of a vocal sort. The singer has to overcome quite a few hardships in the specific piece. While Vivaldi’s and Johann Christian Bach’s coloraturas flatter the voice, Broschi’s don’t. Bartoli’s voice still shines in it, of course, as well as Genaux’ who also likes to sing Broschi once in a while. But it can hardly be counted as Broschi’s achievement — Bartoli and Genaux shine in almost everything.
“Son qual nave” is composed to be an almost vulgar display of skill. It already starts at the very first bars with the explicitly put-in messa di voce.
Letter LVII October 3, 1813, from
So, Broschi wasn’t Vivaldi, but then, is he to blame for it? Let’s focus on what the aria achieves.
It transports restlessness, being at a loss, and to be happy to be so; it’s a mad tour de force.
It is a declaration of love in a way. Broschi wrote it for his brother, knowing that his brother would be admired the more for his performance of the aria.
For me though, it has another notion to it as well. The almost perverted technique required for the piece describes better than any words could what inhumanity it was to castrate boys before their voice changed. The aria shows what a voice can do, with almost no emotion required, a pure display of what can be achieved.
But, I won’t lie, had I lived back then, I would have been the first in the audience to scream “Viva il coltello!” at the top of my voice; had I been born a boy — With any talent, I’m convinced I would have chosen like Caffarelli allegedly did: I would after some consideration gladly have swopped my balls for maybe being able to sing like that.
Hell, yes. I like Broschi. Some share my likes, apparently.
da più scogli in mezzo all’onde
si confonde e spaventata
va solcando in alto mar.
Ma in veder l’amato lido
lascia l’onde e il vento infido
e va in porto a riposar.