Siroe, re di Persia
~ HWV 24 ~

Harmonia Mundi HMC 901826.27
2 CDs
full price
Recorded in 2003.
Released in 2004.

Siroe: Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Emira: Johanna Stojkovic, soprano
Laodice: Sunhae Im, soprano
Medarse: Gunther Schmid, countertenor
Cosroe: Sebastian Noack, baritone
Arasse: Timm de Jong, bass

Cappella Coloniensis (on period instruments)
Conductor: Andreas Spering




Among Handel’s fifteen or so Italian operas composed for the Royal Academy of Music between 1720 and 1728, it is principally Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724), Tamerlano (1724) and Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi (1725) that have legendary status. Nevertheless, all of Handel’s Royal Academy operas contain plenty of musical and dramatic treasures, and Siroe, re di Persia (1728) is not an exception to this rule. Siroe was first performed in 1728, towards the end of the Royal Academy of Music, and at around the time of the popular Beggar’s Opera. Siroe is one of Handel’s few operas based on a source libretto by Metastasio, although it was adapted for London by Nicola Francesco Haym. Considering this context, many biographers have written about this period of failure for Handel’s Italian operas and the dissolution of the Royal Academy of Music. Others have also insinuated that Handel showed a lack of personal affinity for Metastasio’s librettos. Even though the late 1720s was indeed difficult for Italian opera in London, there is undoubtedly another way of interpreting the facts. 

Among the forty or so Italian operas composed by Handel during more than thirty years, the operas with the highest number of performances during their first run are Admeto, re di Tessaglia (1727, 19 performances), Alcina (1735) and Siroe (18 performances each). Thus, as one of the most successful of Handel’s operas during his own lifetime, it seems that Siroe is a victim of some modern prejudices. Among the reasons for the ambiguous factors between success and failure of Handel’s London operas are the singers, and Siroe was composed for a cast of stars: the alto castratos Francesco Bernardi (‘Senesino’) and Antonio Baldi sang Siroe and Medarse, the sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni were Emira and Laodice, and the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi was Cosroe. Those great and expensive singers were certainly the reason why the audiences came to listen to the opera, and also why the company lost money. Furthermore, Handel’s lack of affinity for Metastasio cannot be substantiated. Considering Handel’s alleged lack of interest in Metastasio’s work, it is worth noting that the first opera set to the Siroe libretto was composed only in 1726. In 1728, Metastasio was still a young librettist at the beginning of his career. His fame was just growing, and he was not yet established as court poet in Vienna. It is also important to observe that Handel set music to Metastasio’s Poro and Ezio, and also used Metastasian libretti for four of his pasticcios. 

It is necessary to understand the London adaptation of the Siroe libretto: cuts in recitatives are common in Handel’s Italian operas for London because the audience did not speak Italian, but these alterations were often done with much care and no harm to the plot. The plots were not particularly complicated, and always presented similar dramatic situations (e.g. the struggle for or against love and power), and often referred to well-known characters and stories. Thus the allegation that the London audience experienced problems understanding the plot is probably a false one. As for the changes to aria texts, maybe they were not connected with Handel’s supposed lack of affinity with Metastasio’s dramaturgy, but instead were necessary for the individual talents in Handel’s London cast. For example, if we consider Handel’s operas composed during the same ‘Rival Queens’ period, the presence of two star sopranos is a decisive criterion on the choice of libretto and the method of its adaptation. In fact, some characters and relationships are stronger in Metastasio’s original libretto than in Haym’s adaptation, but Haym’s work results in a libretto which fits Handel’s audience and performers, and it remains a very efficient dramatic version from which Metastasio’s dramaturgical qualities are not erased. 

Those unfamiliar with Siroe might ask what could Handel compose using such a libretto and cast. Well, in every Handel opera there is some music which is always of great interest and expressiveness, and in Siroe his score is sometimes superb. For example, one of the highlights is Siroe’s very dramatic aria ‘Deggio morire’ (Act III scene 7), which is preceded by an accompanied recitative in which he expresses his total despair. Another fine moment is Cosroe’s aria ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ (Act III scene 4 – nowadays a Metastasio text that is well-known thanks to Cecilia Bartoli hallucinated performance of Vivaldi’s setting), in which the old king, responsible for his son’s death, realises that his son was innocent. 

Thus there are many reasons to rejoice about the release of a new recording of this neglected opera. The average (at best) recording released in 1991 on Newport Classics (NCD 60125/1/2/3) is not readily available anymore,[1] so a new improved performance on disc is welcome. But Harmonia Mundi’s box is marked ‘Abridged version’, and some recitatives are heavily cut. This is a useless and regrettable practice which was probably only done to enable the opera to fit on no more than two CDs. So instantly we have a recording that is less than ideal. 

Andreas Spering offers a cohesive, musical, stylish but slightly disappointing approach to Siroe. We could have expected some faster tempi, and it would have been gratifying to have more dramatic tones lending more weight and density to both notes and words, although this recording is always pleasant. In the title-role, the mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, a singer with a strong vocal and dramatic personality, seems to hold back her temperament in a part that sounds slightly too low for her. Despite a mannered rendition of ‘Mi credi infedele’, her performance is of a very high standard. Johanna Stojkovic – though sounding slightly tight – and Sunhae Im offer an interesting evocation of the vocal personalities of Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni as far as they are able to. Handel’s ‘Rival Queens’ went down in history respectively as a very talented pyrotechnician and a singer particularly at ease in the pathetic style, but a reading of the score and the listening of this recording confirm that in fact they were both virtuoso singers who each possessed a wide range of expressiveness. Emira’s aria ‘Sgombra dell’anima’ (Act II scene 4) is something quite special: the A section of this da capo aria consists of two sub-sections: let’s call them A1 (the first musical setting of the first stanza) and A2 (the second musical setting of the first stanza). Then there are repeat bars around A2. We thus have a structure that looks like A1A2A2 B A1A2A2, which means that A2 is sung four times. This invites us to try to imagine the variations sung by Faustina Bordoni on this sequence of fast semiquavers… 

As the bad yet eventually penitent Medarse, the countertenor Gunther Schmid is quite at his ease in the recitatives, but forces his voice in the arias. Concerning Sebastian Noack, what can I say about a singer who persists to sing this repertoire nowadays with no variation or ornamentation at all in da capos, and eventually – but not consistently – inserts a single poor cadenza? 

It is quite difficult to be conclusive about this Siroe. All in all the result is not bad and is quite enjoyable. The female singers offer good performances, and it is not devoid of qualities overall, but the style is handled in an erratic way. Therefore, it is a nice recording that does not grant total justice to such an interesting work. Siroe is still waiting for a great recording.

[1] It was recently re-released in the UK at full-price

© Philippe Gelinaud - February 2004

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