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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Brian Robins

Siroe appeared at a difficult time for Handel. The Royal Academy of Music, the consortium of noblemen that had been promoting his operas (and those of Giovanni Bononcini and Ariosti) since 1720, was close to bankruptcy, thanks largely to the exorbitantly extravagant fees paid to its star singers. Handel attempted unsuccessfully to head off looming disaster with three new operas, Riccardo primo, Sime, and Tolomeo, although Sime, which opened at the King's Theatre on February 17, did achieve the distinction of an opening run of 18 performances, with Alcina the highest figure achieved by any Handel opera. But Sime was never revived by Handel, and has gone down as one of the less successful of his operas. For this the blame has generally been laid at the door of Handel's librettist Nicola Haym, who contrived to make something of a dog's dinner of a well-argued libretto (first set in 1726 by Vinci) by the young Metastasio. Haym's long experience of London opera audiences suggested they would not sit through Metastasio's extensive recitatives, which he cut at the expense of dramatic verisimilitude. It is worth noting that the recitative has been further cut for the present recording, which is described as “abridged.“

The story of political ambition and intrigue is set at the court of King Cosroe of Persia in the first century A.D. His younger son Medarse is set on maneuvering succession to the throne at the expense of his elder brother Siroe, who has additional problems in the shape of the two women in his life, Laodice, the king's mistress who loves him, and Emira, the woman loved by Siroe, who spends most of the opera disguised as a man in order to seek revenge on Cosroe for the death of her father. Ultimately, of course, all is resolved, with Siroe and Emira united and the former crowned as the new Persian king.

Handelians tend to claim that the story and its characters failed to arouse sufficiently Handel's interest, yet Handel was motivated by less promising plots than that of Siroe. More to the point is surely the fact that Handel was not the ideal composer to set Metastasio's exquisite lyrics, which are frequently allegorical or stylized, rarely entering the highly personal world that inspired his finest character creations. While many of the opera's arias are splendid in themselves, only the act III scene in which Siroe awaits death in prison emerges with any real dramatic strength. Here Handel gave Senesino “Deggio morire,“ a superb tragic aria in which the hero laments his hopelessly forlorn situation. It is beautifully done here by Ann Hallenberg, who produces some ravishingly lovely mezza voce singing.

Hallenberg is one of the performance's great successes, confirming the outstanding qualities she revealed in Spering's recent imeneo for cpo (Fanfare 21:6), singing throughout with richly burnished tone and technical assurance. In other ways, however, the set strikes me as less consistently excellent than Imeneo. For this most of the blame must be laid at the door of the conductor himself, whose pacing lacks the unerring judgment he brought to Imeneo. Several arias, most damagingly Laodice's act-II “Mi lagnerò tacendo,“ are taken too slowly and also suffer from sluggish rhythms. The ornamentation of da capo repeats is frequently allowed to go far beyond reasonable bounds. Neither, I'm afraid, can criticism of over-fussy harpsichord continüo-playing be avoided. Notwithstanding, it must also be stressed that much of Spering's direction confirms the positive Handelian credentials he established in Imeneo, with particular praise due for the fine playing he draws from Cappella Coloniensis.

In general tenns, Spering's cast is excellent. I've already mentioned Hallenberg's splendid Siroe, and Johanna Stojkovic's Emira deserves to be considered in much the same terms. It is a strongly delivered and finely executed interpretation of a role I suspect suffers particularly from the alterations to the original libretto. Her fellow prima donna, Sunhae Im, is less happily cast as Laodice. Not only does her light voice sound too young for Cosroe's lady friend, but it also takes on an unpleasing metallic hardness in the upper register. But “Torrente crescuito“ is delicious, Handel's featherweight depiction of the swirling eddies of the text's “swollen stream“ realized to perfection by both singer and orchestra. The secondary roles are all well-filled, especially in the case of Sebastian Noack's agilely sung, and authoritative Cosroe, while on the evidence of his Medarse, Gunther Schmid sounds like another highly promising addition to the ever-burgeoning roster of fine countertenors.

As with a number of the less familiar Handel operas, the sole competition comes, to the best of my knowledge, from a Newport Classics recording under Rudolf Palmer. My guess from the Palmer Handel recordings I do know is that, for all his faults, Spering is likely to have provided a more full-blooded and dramatic reading of a score that needs all the help it can get. Since his recording is in large part also exceptionally well sung, and engineered, it provides a safe recommendation to anyone wishing to explore one of Handel's less convincing operas.

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