Tuesday 8 September 2015

Handel Siroe

Handel Siroe
Handel Siroe; Ann Hallenberg, Johanna Stojkovic, Sunhae Im, Cappella Coloniensis, Andreas Spering; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Fine performance from Ann Hallenberg in the title role of this relatively unloved Handel opera

Handel's settings of librettos by Metastasio, the greatest opera librettist of his age, remain relatively unloved in the composer's oeuvre. This 2004 recording on Harmonia Mundi is a very fine account of Siroe, conducted by Andreas Spering and showcasing Ann Hallenberg as Siroe with a cast including Johanna Stojkovic, Sunhae Im, Gunther Schmid, Sebastian Noack and Tim de Jong, with the Cappella Coloniensis.

Handel wrote Siroe in 1728 at the height of the Royal academy's 'Rival Queens' period when the presence of sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni, Faustina Bordoni and castrato Senesino meant that any opera had to take account of all three, with two balanced soprano roles. Add to this that Metastasio's librettos are famously long and detailed with far more recitative than the UK audience would sit through. So Handel and Nicola Haym re-shaped Siroe so that Handel's opera is far shorter than the original. Whilst the plot might be rudimentary, Handel responded with some fine music.

The plot concerns dynastic conflict between Cosroe (Sebastian Noack) and his two sons, Siroe (Ann Hallenberg) and Medarse (Gunther Schmid), complicated by Emira (Johanna Stojkovic) who is secretly in love with Siroe but at court dressed as a man in order to revenge the death of her father, and Laodice (Sunhae Im) who is Cosroe's mistress, and an inveterate schemer.

Faced with the English audience's love of strong situations and a high moral tone, with not too much talking, and a need to boost the two soprano roles, Siroe is highly coloured and rather improbable yet fascinatingly serious in tone. It is the sort of opera which benefits from the sort of zippy performance of the recitative that the recent highly dramatic, live performances from the Halle Fesival have been giving us under Laurence Cummings (see my review of their 2013 account of Siroe). Instead the recitative here is cut, so reducing Metastasio's original to a mere vestige, and it is performed with rather stately clarity.

But musically, the arias are performed to a very high order. Ann Hallenberg makes a noble Siroe, singing with wonderful firm, even, sculpted tone. A glorious performance culminating in her powerful accompagnato and aria in Act 3. The two sopranos are, perhaps, not quite adequately differentiated in vocal timbre. Both have species of bright, focussed yet slim lyric voices, yet both respond to the outrageous technical demands with bravura.

As Emira, Johanna Stojkovic sings with great charm, often rather pert, but she is by turns graceful and technically superb in her ornamentation, with her vivid first aria in Act 2 going at quite a vigorous lick. The scheming Laodice, sung by Sunhae Im, displays quite a strong character with some lively ornamentation, yet her aria concluding Act 1 is poignant whilst her her Act 2 arias are highly bravura and the first is a toe-tapping delight.

Sebastian Noack blusters finely as Cosroe, a slightly dry tone perhaps but he brings swagger and vigorous attack to the role. And in Act 3 he gets a powerful aria, which is finely sung. Handel and Haym cut the role of Medarse significantly (so that Siroe is the only major castrato role). Here Gunther Schmid copes creditably but does not quite bring the role off with the aplomb that the others do.

Andreas Spering's speeds can be on the brisk side, but not overly so, and the Cappella Coloniensis play well for him. And they get a couple of sinfonias to add to the substantial overture in which to show off. The booklet includes a good article, tracklist and synopsis but no libretto. I would not want to be without Laurence Cumming's highly dramatic performance from Halle, but this reissue has some things in its favour. Being as so much of the recitative is cut, the opera fits neatly onto two CD's and Ann Hallenberg's superb performance in the title role makes it highly recommendable.

Siroe - Ann Hallenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Emira - Johanna Stojkovic (soprano)
Laodice - Sunhae Im (soprano)
Cosroe - Sebastian Noack (baritone)
Medarse - Gunther Schmid (counter-tenor)
Arasse - Tim de Jong
Cappella Coloniensis
Andreas Spering (conductor)
Recorded 2003
Harmonia Mundi HMY2921826-27 2CD's

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