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Johann Adolph HASSE (1699 - 1783)
Siroe, Re di Persia (Dresden Version, 1763) [82:34]
Siroe - Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Medarse - Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor)
Emira - Mary-Ellen Nesi (mezzo)
Laodice - Julia Lezhneva (soprano)
Cosroe - Juan Sancho (tenor)
Arasse - Lauren Snouffer (soprano)
Armonia Atenea (on period instruments)/George Petrou
rec. Parnassos Hall, Athens, 21-31 July 2014
DECCA 4786768 [83:53 + 82:35]

Of the many composers of Italian opera during the 18th century, few were as important as Johann Adolph Hasse. He was well connected; studied with Nicola Porpora and Alessandro Scarlatti, and married the famous soprano Faustina Bordini. The latter was a wise move since she commanded twice his fee for an opera performance and somehow retained her court opera salary after retirement.

Although Hasse was based at Dresden, his operas were performed all over Europe but it was through Hasse that Dresden became one of the most important centres for music north of the Alps in the mid-18th century. The Italians, whose operatic style was now being substantially represented by a north German composer, honoured him with the affectionate name 'il caro sassone' ('the dear Saxon').

That said, the key figure in baroque opera is not Hasse, or Handel, or any composer, but the poet Pietro Metastasio, librettist of Siroe and about sixty other texts, twenty-seven of them in the opera seria genre as here. Those libretti were set more than eight hundred times by more than three hundred composers. He established the alternation between recitative that carries the action forward, and the aria as a moment of reflection. He provided the stanzas for those arias which so suited the da capo structure, and depicted the various moral characteristics of each role, in these dramas of moral conflict.

Siroe is a typical production, and concerns the eventual replacement of Cosroe, a ruler no longer fit for his office, by Siroe, his virtuous elder son. It was set by Porta, Porpora, Sarro, Vivaldi and Handel before Hasse got round to it. Metastasio was a trained musician as well, and there survives a long letter from him to Hasse with detailed instructions about how to set one of his texts. It is welcome therefore that Max Emanuel Cencic, in an intelligent note in the booklet, gives the poet due honour.

Hasse's music is in the rococo galant style, with its relative simplification of earlier practice, lean textures, straightforward melodies and functional bass lines. C.P.E Bach, according to Burney, admiringly called Hasse a "cheat", "for in a score of twenty nominal parts he had seldom more than three real ones in action, but with these he produced such divine effects as must never be expected from a crowded score." His best scores deserve revival, and not only as historical curiosities, for there is much to enjoy in this recording of Siroe despite the obvious Metastasian limitations - a story more concerned with moral situations than drama, and a string of solo da capo arias all for high voice, not once varied by duets or ensembles of any kind - until the obligatory brief closing chorus.

There is some unexpected variety though, in that not all the music here is by Hasse, or not all from Siroe. A couple of numbers are interpolations: Act Three scene eight is a piece of accompanied recitative from Handel's Siroe, and though it is followed by a Hasse aria, it is from one of his other operas, Tito Vespasiano. The final scene includes a brilliant showpiece number from Graun's Brittanico, which allows the seconda donna to bring the house down at the close. This was standard practice in the baroque opera house, and often driven by the singers themselves but although these insertions are duly noted in the track-listings, there is no explanation of why these items were selected for these moments.

This recording follows some of the same team's award-winning 2012 Decca version of Handel's Alessandro, and again the star counter-tenor Max Emanuel Cencic is the prime mover behind it, even directing the Athens stage production of Siroe which followed the recording sessions. Those sessions were generous in number, and spread over twelve days. Perhaps the idea is for that period effectively to double as rehearsal for the staged production, which would make artistic and economic sense. It means presumably that there is plenty of opportunity for everyone to produce the best take of each number for the final edit. Also scheduling attendance at sessions must be more straightforward when everyone is in town for the staging, and there are only solos - Julia Lezhneva said in an interview that she had valued getting some days off in that period. Certainly it has paid off handsomely, not only because it is hard to imagine that many of these numbers could have been better done, but also because there is such dramatic fire in the singing, perhaps a consequence of having Cencic around as stage director as well as a lead singer.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with those two amazing counter-tenors, Cencic and the equally remarkable Franco Fagioli, vying for the top vocal honours, but with the three females matching their formidable technique, especially the glamorous sounding and highly skillful Julia Lezhneva. Her account of that closing aria di bravura from Graun will be the one you will greet your friends with, saying "come in, sit down and listen to this." Only the tenor Juan Sancho as Cosroe sounds a little stretched at the top of the register in his arias but he is otherwise an engaging and impressive singer. Everyone else sounds remarkably secure in the wineglass-shattering vocal regions, and almost comfortable with the fearsome coloratura required, even at Petrou's often ferocious speeds. It's not all about vocal fireworks. Several of the lyrical melodies for which Hasse was once so admired are seductively delivered also.

The period orchestra is a delight, even when pushed hard by Petrou, and the sound is clear, clean and fairly well-balanced, if with an understandable slight favouring of the voices. The three acts have been squeezed on to two CDs, both over 80 minutes long. There are two booklets, one with the full libretto and English translation, the other with two short essays and detailed track-listings, timings and libretto page references. In other words this is the sort of premium opera recording that has become increasingly rare. So ignore the critics who have observed that Hasse is not as good as Handel - who is? This work has some fascinating things in it, and all concerned do it proud. Above all, we have here something close to the acme of baroque opera singing in the current era.

Roy Westbrook


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