Friday, 27 June 2014

Handel - Siroe

Handel - Siroe - Accent
Handel Siroe; Yosemeh Adjei, Anna Dennis, Aleksandra Zamojska, Gottingen Festival Orchestra, Laurence Cummings; Accent
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 14 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Lovely dramatic feel to Handel's rarely done 1728 opera

Handel's 1728 opera Siroe has not, so far, done well on disc so this new recording on the Accent label is most welcome. Recorded live at the 2013 Gottingen Festival it has Laurence Cummings conducting the Gottingen Festival Orchestra with a talented young cast; Yosemeh Adjei as Siroe, Anna Dennis as Emira, Aleksandra Zamojska as Laodice, Antonio Giovannini as Medarse, Lisandro Abadie as Cosroe and Ross Ramgobin as Arasse.

Handel wrote Siroe at the height of the 'Rival Queens' era, when the Royal Academy ran Italian opera in London and its stars included the two sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, and castrato Senesino. The rivalry between Bordoni and Cuzzoni might not have been the stuff of legend, but the management still needed operas with two balanced soprano parts. The effort of doing this seems to have inhibited Handel, his operas for the two sopranos do not match his clutch of masterpieces written for Cuzzoni and Senesino before Bordoni's arrival.

The libretto for Siroe was originally by Metastasio, whose long time collaborator Johann Adolf Hasse would become Francesca Cuzzoni's husband. Handel does not seem to have had an entirely happy relationship with Metastasio's libretti, generally preferring librettos from an earlier period. That said, there are some superb moments in the work.


The plot is the usual Metastasian dynastic in-fighting. Cosroe, King of Persia, is jealous of his popular son Siroe and rather too trusting of his venal son Medarse. Cosroe determines to put Medarse on the throne and have Siroe executed. Emira has sworn revenge on Cosroe for putting her father to death and is lurking at court dressed as a man, she also falls in love with Siroe. Laodice is also in love with Siroe and spurned, she plots revenge.


Whilst Metastasio's librettos can seem a little chilly, he was adept at putting his characters in the sort of tortured situations which brought something out of composers. Siroe includes Laodice's lovely lament in act two 'Mi lagnero tacendo' in which she realises her love for Medarse is futile, Cosroe's 'Gelido, in ogni vena' in which he expresses his remorse that it is too late to stop the execution of his son Siroe, and Siroe's prison scene. All are Handel at his finest.

As was usual with Metastasio, there was a considerable amount of recitative which to an Italian audience would tell the story in riveting detail but which the non-Italian speaking English found tedious. Handel set a cut version, but there is still a lot of recit. (Handel's opera has three hours of music whereas Hasse's complete settings of Metastasio could have half as much music again). This recording was made live at the Gottingen Festival and it shows, as the recitative is taken at a cracking pace and presented with hugely dramatic conviction. There is also a lot of stage noise and this, combined with the images of the production from the CD booklet, make me curious about the staging.

Taken on its own, the recording is highly involving and very recommendable. Laurence Cummings conducts a brisk and vivid account of the overture, which grabs your attention immediately.

Yosemeh Adjei (Siroe) and Anna Dennis (Emira) - (c) Da Silva
Yosemeh Adjei (Siroe) and Anna Dennis (Emira) - (c) Da Silva
Gottingen Festival production of Siroe
Siroe, the noble but put-upon prince, is played by the young German (of Ghanaian roots) counter tenor Yosemeh Adjei. He displays a nicely resonant tone with a bit of edge, and is vivid when Siroe laments his fate in his second aria in act one. In act two, Adjei's performance remains strongly characterised, though his tone does get a bit pressed and his passagework can be a bit wayward. But then again Siroe is under a degree of stress and it is clear the production is quite physical. In act three we have Adjei's powerful account of Siroe's prison scene; just an arioso and aria, but Adjei makes it really powerful stuff.

Emira (the Faustina Bordone role) is dressed as a man and set on revenge for the death of her father, but loves Siroe. She is sung by the British soprano Anna Dennis. In her opening aria Dennis displays a lovely rich, focused lyric soprano with fine control and some lovely even runs. She continues impressing, giving superbly poised performances. Emira's aria which closes act two, when Emira wishes she could be a shepherd away from all the stress, is rather fabulous with a lovely shape to the melody and poised ornaments. When things resolve themselves in act three, Dennis has a lovely infectious aria in which Emira pledges her love for Siroe.

Laodice (the Francesca Cuzzoni role), whose scheming is triggered by Siroe's rejection of her, is sung by Aleksandra Zamojska from Poland. I did worry at first that her voice might be a little too soubrette-ish, though clearly with much charm. But her second aria in act one, when Laodice despairs after Siroe's arrest, is highly expressive. And her lament in act two, when Siroe spurns Laodice, is finely done. Her second aria in that act is brilliantly done; it is a simile aria which has only tangential relevance to the action. Laodice gets another simile aria at the opening of act three, which Zamojska despatches in an infectious manner. But over use of simile arias always seems to indicate an element of desperation in a libretto, and the heart sinks somewhat when, after agreeing to pair up with Medarse, Laodice gets yet another simile aria. But it is sung brilliantly by Zamojska, perhaps her runs are a little smudgy and her ornaments in the da capo a little over the top, but she gives the aria just the right expressive feel.

The Argentinian bass Lisandro Abadie impressed when I heard him live at the London Handel Festival, and he does so again here. Singing with a lovely focussed baritone and a fine technical command of the passagework, his Cosroe is vigorously vibrant with some nicely dramatic touches in act three.

Siroe's brother, the venal Medarse, is sung by Antonio Giovannini, a young counter-tenor from Florence. Medarse is very much the second'uomo and gets far fewer arias. He gives quite a stylish performance, though his voice is quite high tension (not a bad thing in a villain). In his act two aria his lower register sounds a bit chesty, but he impresses with the vibrancy of his performance and makes a similar impact with his act three aria.

Arasse, one of Cosroe's generals, Siroe's friend and Laodice's brother, is sung by bass Ross Ramgobin. It is a small role, with no aria.

Gottingen Festival production of Siroe
Gottingen Festival production of Siroe
As I have said, this is an opera whose performance stands or falls by the recitatives as well as arias, and here all members of the cast impress. We have very much a vivid, sung drama. Following the opera with the libretto is, however, a bit of a pain. The English translation used is an old fashioned one with phrases like 'Ah, pray now Hydaspes, prithee sooth him, tell him, that I adore him, my Sovreign'. This makes it tricky to follow the dialogue at speed.

The performance from Laurence Cummings and the Gottingen Festival Orchestra impresses throughout. We not only get the overture, but a movement from Concerto Gross Op. 6 no.2 and two sinfonias in act three.

I have to admit that I still wonder what Siroe would be like on stage. Judging from this disc, the performance at the Gottingen Festival was vividly involving and dramatic. Yes, the plot has its awkward holes and the title role seems to lack personality but Metastasio provides Handel with some stunning situations. Perhaps the music here is not as consistently high as in the greatest of Handel's operas, but there are some superb moments.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Siroe (1728) [184.19]
Siroe - Yosemeh Adjei (countertenor)
Emira - Anna Dennis (soprano)
Laodice - Aleksandra Zamojska (soprano)
Medarse - Antonio Giovannini (countertenor)
Cosroe - Lisandro Abadie (bass)
Arasse - Ross Ramgobin (bass)
Gottingen Festival Orchestra
Laurence Cummings (conductor)
Recorded live at the Gottingen Festival 10 May 2013
ACCENT 3CD's [64.23, 64.13, 55.43]
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