George Frideric HANDEL (1685 – 1759)
Siroe, Re di Persia (1728)
Ann Hallenberg (contralto) – Siroe; Johanna Stojkovic (soprano) – Emira; Sunhae Im (soprano) – Laodice; Gunther Schmid (counter-tenor) – Medarse; Sebastian Noack (baritone) – Cosroe; Timm de Jong (bass) – Arasse
Capella Coloniensis/Andreas Spering
rec. May 2003, Sendesaal, Deutschlandfunk, Cologne
Brief synopsis but no sung texts
HARMONIA MUNDI HMX2921826.27 [79:08 + 75:57]
Siroe was Handel’s twelfth opera for the Royal Academy of Music. It was written for sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (Laodice) and Faustina Bordoni (Emira) and for the title role Francesco Bernardi was engaged – he is better known as Senesino, one of the starriest castratos of the day. The premiere was conducted by the composer at the King’s Theatre in London on 17 February 1728. The libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym, who collaborated with Handel on several of his operas. Siroe, Re di Persia was based on Metastasio’s Siroe, which was first set by Leonardo Vinci in 1726.

The production was not without complications. The two star sopranos were rivals and had developed rival groups. In an opera by Bononcini the previous year there had been fights and disorder in the audience and even on-stage the two prima donnas had exchanged insults and had been seen hitting each other. The newspapers had ridiculed Italian opera at large and then John Gay´s The Beggars’ Opera opened in London just a couple of weeks before the premiere of Siroe. Gay satirized opera seria and his entertainment was a tremendous success. Handel’s had an unalloyed fear that Siroe would flop but against all odds it had a run of eighteen performances and was quite successful. It was also played in Germany but Handel never mounted it again in Britain and it was not until almost 200 years later that it was seen again, in Jena in 1925.

The story is just as complicated as many other operas of its time. The Crown Prince of Persia, Siroe, is very popular among the people but his father, the King, wants his younger son to be the next King. There is a series of misunderstandings, plots, disguises and accusations but in the end everything is sorted out, Siroe can marry his beloved Emira, the King abdicates and Siroe is crowned King of Persia. The finale is all celebrations and rejoicings.

With three of the greatest singers in central roles and a supporting cast no less excellent, Handel could adorn the score with a succession of brilliant arias. For this recording Harmonia Mundi has gathered a superb cast, able to do full justice to the music.

In the centre of the proceedings stands the magnificent contralto Ann Hallenberg who in six great and long arias creates a rounded portrait of Crown Prince Siroe. Se il labbro onor ti giuro CD 1 tr. 9) is a noble aria, as befits a Royal person, and it is warmly sung. One at once feels sympathy for the character. Her/his second aria, La sorte mia tiranna (CD 1 tr. 13) is even greater and the singing is superb. The fast, dramatic Mi credi infedele (CD 1 tr. 23) adds further insight and Fra dubbi affetti miei (CD 2 tr. 4) is maybe the best aria of them all – unless it be the recitativo accompagnato Son stanco, ingiusti Numi followed by the long, tragic and emotional Deggio morire, o stelle (CD 2 tr. 15-16). She rounds off her impressive contribution with Se l’amor tuo mi rendi (CD 2 tr. 20). Hers is indeed a voice to admire and savour.

The two sopranos are also well in the picture. Previously I have only encountered Johanna Stojkovic in romantic opera (Lortzing, Enna) and operetta (Lehŕr), but she is likewise at home in baroque repertoire. Her mellifluous soprano soars elegantly in D’ogni amator la fede (CD 1 tr. 7), a beautiful aria with quite elaborate embellishments. In act II she is intensely dramatic in Sgombra dall’anima (CD 1 tr. 25). She is also allotted the very last aria, La mia speranza (CD 2 tr. 24) which offers superb virtuoso singing.

Sunhae Im, whom I have admired in Mozart and Haydn, is a riveting Laodice, her bright, lyric soprano always a pleasure to listen to. Her coloratura is impeccable. All this is on display in the excellent and brilliant O placido il mare (CD 1 tr. 11). Her long Mi lagnerň tacendo in act II (CD 1 tr. 21) is also masterly, so beautifully sung with exquisite long pianissimo phrases.

Sebastian Noack, also an excellent Lieder singer, is a sturdy but flexible King Cosroe, and he has both power and a good legato. His younger son, Medarse, is sung with fluency and dramatic conviction by Gunther Schmid, while Arasse, Siroe´s confidante, only appears in act III and then only in recitative.

Andreas Spering keeps things on the move – and I prefer baroque operas to be on the brisk side. The Cappella Coloniensis are in excellent form. It is a pleasure to hear them on their own in the tripartite overture and also in a couple of short sinfonias further on. Recitatives are mainly short and performed swiftly – possibly somewhat foreshortened – and the whole opera fits neatly on two well filled CDs. The lack of a libretto is a drawback but even those only mildly interested in the plot should derive lots of pleasure from just listening to the opera as an attractive concert of great arias out of Handel’s top-drawer.

Göran Forsling

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