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Leonardo VINCI (1690-1730)
Siroe, Re di Persia (1726)
Cosroe – Carlo Allemano
Siroe – Cristina Alunno
Medarse – Leslie Visco
Emira – Roberta Invernizzi
Laodice – Daniela Salvo
Arasse – Luca Cervoni
Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo/ Antonio Florio
rec. 3-4 November 2018, Teatro San Carlo, Naples, Italy
Booklet notes and synopsis in English and Italian
Italian libretto with English translation
DYNAMIC CDS7838.03 [3 CDs: 158.42]

The libretto Siroe, Re di Persia became one of the most ubiquitous and famous by the renowned 18th century writer Pietro Metastasio, with operas by Handel and Hasse among several dozen other settings in the decades which followed. That by Leonardo Vinci was the first, and also proved to be a conspicuous triumph for a Neapolitan composer in Venice, having been written for the carnival season of 1726, when even Vivaldi only achieved intermittent success in the opera house in his native city.

As a typical opera seria, exalting the virtues that are required for sound royal government, Siroe’s popularity in the fiercely republican state of Venice was curious. Furthermore, its long reams of recitative – which often complicate the drama rather than clarify it – also made it an unlikely candidate for approval in a city which had developed its own, very different dynamic in music drama since the masterpieces of Monteverdi and Cavalli, which mixed tragic, comic, and lyrical elements. Handel wisely cut some of that recitative when he set the libretto in 1728.

The narrative starts off from a similar basis as King Lear, as Cosroe, king of Persia chooses between his two sons, Siroe and Medrase, should be his heir. Although Medrase is said to be weak and incompetent, Cosroe chooses him over Siroe, but the libretto fails to explain why, nor does it delineate the shortcomings of Medrase or the qualities by which Siroe has won the support of the Persian people. Rather, Siroe’s perplexity that anybody other than himself could be considered for the throne comes across simply as haughty, obdurate pride. That impression is not allayed by his intransigent love for Emira, the sworn enemy of his father, who had defeated and killed her father and the rest of her family. Siroe’s refusal to tell Cosroe of Emira’s plot against him, other than by way of an anonymous letter, as well as his inscrutable attitude to Emira when she falsely accuses him of being the traitor who seeks Cosroe’s life, looks more like stubbornness rather than virtuous principle.

This recording comes from a live concert performance, claimed to be the first in modern times. Applause is captured at the end of each act, but fortunately not between any of the individual numbers. The singers seem to have been placed further back from the microphones than the orchestra, so that they sound somewhat distant and boxed in, which also tends to make them slightly squally in timbre as a result, which is rather a problem when four of the six vocal roles are in the high register.

In essence, the performance is dutiful rather than illuminating the complex machinations of the drama, perhaps surprisingly so seeing that the presence of a live audience does not seem to have prompted a more responsive interpretation. In particular the long recitatives could do with just a little more purposeful delivery to sustain attention, though they are executed decently enough in themselves. Notwithstanding a couple of minor-key arias, it is true that the generally graceful manner of Vinci’s writing in the others, anticipating the galant style in the middle of the century, mitigates against more vigorous dramatisation in scenes which evidently call for it. For example, there are no ensembles except for the final brief chorus of the soloists singing in ensemble; there is no prison aria for Siroe when he finds himself incarcerated, as such operas usually featured; nor any really triumphal aria at the conclusion. That formal regularity of the work appears to incite Antonio Florio and the Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo into a comfortable if not exacting performance overall. After the nimble, festive tone struck for the Overture, the arias chug along happily enough – the Neapolitan characteristic of repeated notes in the bass line is prominent in many numbers – but a touch more nuance and variety would bring more of them to life, especially as the literary similes and metaphors of the text for many of them tend to divorce the libretto from continued, direct involvement in the unfolding of the narrative.

Among the singers, Roberta Invernizzi lives up to expectations as probably the best known of the cast, for her commanding account of the role of Emira. Even in her first appearance she demonstrates her understanding of the character’s complexity and astuteness, with the caressing, coaxing way of her declamations in the recitative, followed by quite a refulgent, vibrato-laden tone in her aria ‘Ancor io penai d’amore’ to leave the listener in no doubt as to either the determination or the sincerity of her schemes. By comparison Cristina Alunno sounds rightly weedy as Siroe. Although she can sound shrill, she certainly also expresses some forcefulness. Leslie Visco is more full-voiced as his brother Medarse, and if she is largely beset by the same problem, she attains a better purity of timbre in the last aria of the work before the concluding chorus.

In the baritone role of Cosroe, Carlo Allemano tends to sing from the head rather than the chest, so that he is airy and approximate in tone, and more assertive rage is more hurled out than securely projected. More solid gravitas would be ideal on the part of the king, even if he comes to rue his severity in sentencing Siroe to death, before the good news is revealed that Arasse, out of compassion, ignored the order. Luca Cervoni catches that attribute of the character, if with a touch of reediness, but the pastoral mood of his act one aria ‘L’onda che mormora’ is delightfully evoked both by him and the trilling solo oboe, resulting in one of the musical highlights of the whole opera. As Laodice, the mistress of Cosroe, but who is actually in love with Siroe, Daniela Salvo attains some nobility in her interpretation, at the same time as sounding somewhat pinched in tone.

This release constitutes a useful document of an operatic rarity, but it is only likely to appeal to confirmed fans of Baroque opera. Listeners intrigued to discover more about this composer, and why he was highly esteemed by Handel who drew upon some of his operas for his pasticcio stage works in London, would find Artaserse or Partenope more musically diverse and vivid examples as a starting point, even in their CD versions, never mind the colourful productions of them on DVD (here for Partenope). The detailed booklet essay by Dinko Fabris analysing the history and structure of the opera provides much scholarly information to those interested in such matters.

Curtis Rogers

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