29 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse – SIROE, RÈ DI PERSIA (M. E. Cenčić, F. Fagioli, J. Lezhneva, M.-E. Nesi, L. Snouffer, J. Sancho; DECCA 478 6768)

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse - SIROE, RÈ DI PERSIA (DECCA 478 6768)JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783): Siroe, rè di Persia (1763 Dresden version)—Max Emanuel Cenčić (Siroe), Franco Fagioli (Medarse), Julia Lezhneva (Laodice), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Emira), Lauren Snouffer (Arasse), Juan Sancho (Cosroe); Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Parnassos Hall, Athens, Greece, 21 – 31 July 2014; DECCA 478 6768; 2 CD, 170:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Johann Adolf Hasse's Siroe, re di Persia was first performed at Bologna's Teatro Malvezzi on 2 May 1733, the cast included a quintet of the most widely-celebrated singers of the Eighteenth Century: Vittoria Tesi, Anna Maria Peruzzini, Filippo Giorgio, and the castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli as the title monarch and his younger brother Medarse. Three years later, Farinelli reprised his rôle in performances at London's Haymarket Theatre, and Tesi and Caffarelli returned to their parts at the famed Teatro di San Carlo in Naples​ in 1747. In defiance of the hardship and devastation suffered by the Saxon capital during the Seven Years' War​, Hasse was commissioned to adapt his setting of Metastasio's libretto for performance at the rejuvenated court of Elector Friedrich August II, who died two months after the revised Siroe was first performed on 3 August 1763. The extent of Hasse’s alterations to Siroe is difficult to ascertain 250 years later, but the Dresden score recorded by DECCA and Parnassus Arts Productions is a progressive work, its prevailing musical language being that of the formative utterances of Classicism. Supplementing the surviving music with material from Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico and Händel’s setting of Siroe, as well as from another of Hasse’s operas, Giovanni Andrea Sechi [handling arias] and Renzo Bez [responsible for Sinfonia, recitatives, and final chorus] have recreated the opera in an approximation of the form that, in 1763, distracted its composer from the misfortunes of war, which included the razing of his house. Comparing the results of their labors with the few surviving accounts of the 1733 Bologna première and subsequent revivals, the Dresden version of Siroe is a tauter, faster-moving work, though it is acknowledged that the present recording makes use of extensive cuts to secco recitative. Hasse’s extraordinary imagination is fully in evidence, however. As recorded here, Siroe lacks the expressive potential of the composer’s Artaserse, Cleofide, and Piramo e Tisbe, but the quality of the music is undeviatingly high. With only a few reservations, this recording—a release that upholds DECCA’s storied traditions of technical expertise and thoughtful presentation—preserves an account of the opera that advocates strongly for the justification of its revival. Most valuably, it is another small glimpse of the mosaic of Hasse’s creativity that remains mostly obscured by the grime of two-and-a-half centuries of neglect.

As in their previous collaborations with DECCA and Parnassus, Armonia Atenea and George Petrou prove to be musicians of the highest order whose contributions construct excellent-quality frames for the musical portraits created by the singers. Leading from the harpsichord, Maestro Petrou exhibits an innate comprehension of Hasse’s musical-crossroads style, a trait that here expands on its airing on the previous DECCA release Rokoko. The conductor has an affinity for challenging both singers and instrumentalists without overwhelming them, and he proves especially adept in Siroe at propelling the drama excitingly. In a few of the bravura arias, however, Maestro Petrou’s tempi rush the singers unduly, which jeopardizes the potency of their efforts and increases the tension on their techniques. Assistant Conductor Markellos Chryssikos shares harpsichord duties with Maestro Petrou, and their efforts combine with the theorbo playing of Theodoros Kitsos to fashion a largely logical but lively continuo. Zacharias Tarpangos’s and Nikos Dimitratos’s sweet-toned playing of the transverse flutes is complemented by the lovely, appealingly stylish playing of oboists Yannis Papagiannis and Dimitris Vamvas, bassoonist Alexandros Economou, and horn players Costas Siskos and Spyros Kakkos. The string playing is wonderfully animated within the boundaries of period-appropriate practices. All of the musicians bring to the performance a sense of close cooperation, and, on the whole, this provides the singers with the support that they need to brave the perils of Hasse’s score.

Among the sextet of gifted soloists, young American soprano Lauren Snouffer makes a magnificent major-label début with a splendidly-sung performance as the Persian general Arasse. Composed in 1733 for a lower voice, it is likely that Hasse substantially altered the tessitura of the part for the Dresden production in 1763 in order to make the music more congenial for a higher voice. In the Act One aria ‘Contente non siete d'un povero core,’ Ms. Snouffer discloses a strong technique that never fails her as the opera progresses. Allying a genuinely lovely, silvery timbre with dazzling fluidity in the bravura writing and a particularly attractive upper register, she delivers Arasse’s music, arias and recitatives alike, with the assurance of a veteran singer twice her age. Her singing is unabashedly feminine, but she conveys a suggestion of machismo with the confident swagger of her phrasing. Ms. Snouffer sings both of her subsequent arias, ‘Se pugnar non sai col fato’ in Act Two and ‘L'alma a goder prepara’ in Act Three, with such conviction that Arasse himself seems destined for the throne. Deeming a young singer promising has become a cliché, but this performance confirms that Ms. Snouffer, already an impressively finished singer, is an artist of exceptional promise, both in Baroque repertory and beyond.

The rôle of Laodice, Arasse's sister, was specially crafted for Elisabeth Teyber, Hasse’s pupil, and the composer undoubtedly sought to give his student plentiful opportunities to cover herself—and him—in glory. In fine operatic fashion, Laodice is Cosroe’s mistress but is in love with his son Siroe, and her predicament—and the identity of her portrayer in Dresden, to be sure—prompts some extravagantly difficult music. Young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, already a mainstay of DECCA’s releases in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, is a Laodice of icy integrity, her accuracy in coloratura awe-inspiring but also slightly off-putting. Ms. Lezhneva’s bravura technique is phenomenal, but there are instances in this performance in which it sounds as though she is dangerously forcing the voice in the upper register. In Laodice’s aria in Act One, ‘O placido il mare lusinghi la sponda,’ she establishes herself as a central focus of the drama, and she perpetuates Laodice’s significance with electric performances of ‘Mi lagnerò tacendo’ in Act Two and ‘Se il caro figlio vede in periglio’ in Act Three.

It is also in Act Three that the foremost mystery of this recording of Siroe is encountered. In both the track list and the libretto accompanying the CD release, the aria ‘Di tuo amor, mio cor è indegno’—a number borrowed from Act Two of Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico, in which it was set as an aria for Agrippina with the text ‘Mi paventi il figlio,’ in which form it was popularized in Berlin and Dresden in the Eighteenth Century by Gertrud Elisabeth Mara, in Vienna in the Nineteenth Century by Sophie Löwe (the creator of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla and Verdi’s first Elvira in Ernani and Odabella in Attila), and in London in 1856 by Pauline Viardot, who owned a manuscript score of the aria—is attributed to Emira, but there is no question that the aria is sung on the recording by Ms. Lezhneva, who has also sung Graun’s aria with its original text in concert. The text of ‘Di tuo amor, mio cor è indegno’ appears neither in Metastasio’s original libretto for Siroe when it was first set to music by Domenico Sarro in 1721 nor in the surviving materials from Hasse’s versions of the opera, so the most logical conclusion is that the aria was custom-fit with a newly-invented text in order to provide Ms. Lezhneva with a suitably fiendish bravura aria in which to further exercise her formidable technique. The aria fits that bill perfectly, and Ms. Lezhneva sings it staggeringly well if rather coldly, but not even the white-knuckle pyrotechnics display justifies the aria’s inclusion, especially as the source of the performing edition of the music is of questionable provenance. Musically and dramatically, the aria—very effective in its proper position in Act Two of Britannico, in which Agrippina bemoans her son Nero’s treachery—adds nothing but a flurry of notes to Siroe, and its interpolation is frankly an affront to Hasse, whose writing for the Dresden Siroe is already in danger of seeming superfluous. Why the aria is attributed to Emira but sung by Ms. Lezhneva is a conundrum. Furthermore, could an equally daunting piece not have been found in another of Hasse’s operas?

Emira, the Princess of Cambay disguised during much of the opera as Idaspe, is sung by Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, a fantastic singer who in this performances sounds slightly out of sorts. In Emira’s Act One aria, 'D'ogni amator la fede,' Ms. Nesi immediately commands attention with the boldness of her singing, but she does not sound completely comfortable with the rôle’s tessitura. In her aria in Act Two, 'Sgombra dall'anima tutto il timor,' Ms. Nesi is on more solid vocal ground, and the familiar strength of her singing is evident. The pinnacle of her performance is the aria ‘Non vi piacque, inguisti dei,’ which she sings with the concentration of an Olympic athlete and the dramatic intensity of a woman whose life seems on the brink of collapse. The ferocity of ‘Che furia, che mostro,’ Emira’s aria in Act Three, is palpably conveyed, but Ms. Nesi would have benefited from greater support from Maestro Petrou. She must push the voice in order to keep up with his tempo: keep up she does, but the hectic pace deprives her singing of a measure of its dark beauty. Ms. Nesi is always heard with pleasure, and it is indicative of the extraordinary quality of her artistry that a performance as accomplished as this one falls just short of her own standard.

Sung in the 1763 Dresden production of Siroe by Angelo Amorevoli, a singer considered one of the greatest tenors of the first half of the Eighteenth Century who also created rôles in Hasse's Attilio Regolo and Solimano, Cosroe is assigned in this performance to Spanish tenor Juan Sancho. In recitative, Mr. Sancho is sometimes over-emphatic but always involved in the drama. His accompagnato with Siroe and Medarse in Act One, ‘Figli, di voi non meno che del regno son padre,’ is vigorously declaimed, and he brings tireless aplomb to the aria ‘Se il mio paterno amore,’ detonating one flashing​ tone in the vicinity of top C​ after another in his adventurous embellishment of the da capo. Cosroe has another powerful accompagnato in Act Two, ‘Più dubitar non posso, è Siroe l'infedel,’ and Mr. Sancho again spits out the words with vehemence. His singing of the aria ‘Tu di pietà mi spogli’ is robust, and the vulnerability that he infuses into the red-blooded urgency of the Act Three aria ‘Gelido in ogni vena scorrer mi sento il sangue’ enhances the impact of his shapely singing. Mr. Sancho creates a winsomely dispirited, vengeful monarch whose ultimate magnanimity is the culmination of a process of personal growth evinced through song.

As sung by Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli, Medarse is an iron-willed usurper whose ambitions overcome his innate decency. It was to Medarse that Hasse entrusted the final number of Act One, the coloratura showpiece ‘Fra l'orror della tempesta,’ which Mr. Fagioli sings majestically. Here and throughout the performance, Mr. Fagioli is stressed by Maestro Petrou’s tempi, and this results in an over-prominence of vibrato. His range extends to B♭5 and occasionally higher with few hints of strain, and even when cruelly tested by the music the voice is a first-rate instrument. Medarse’s arias in Acts Two and Three, ‘Tu decidi del mio fato’ and ‘Torrente cresciuto per torbida piena’ receive sterling performances, Mr. Fagioli’s technical composure enabling him to bring off incredible feats of virtuosity. In this sensitive singer’s performance, Medarse’s final confession and capitulation are unexpectedly touching: Mr. Fagioli manages to make the character one who seems truly contrite and deserving of forgiveness.

His advocacy for Hasse having been expertly established with Rokoko, his recital of Hasse arias for DECCA, Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić expands his familiarity with the composer’s engaging gallant idiom with a subtle, richly expressive performance of the wrongly-accused title character in Siroe. Mr. Cenčić’s Siroe is a prince of legitimate nobility who proclaims his innocence without resorting to harshness or hysterics. In the Act One aria ‘La sorte mia tiranna,’ Mr. Cenčić unleashes the very best of his artistry: singing the exquisite cantilena with firm, rounded tone, he phrases expansively. In Act Two, he differentiates the sentiments of the arias ‘Mi credi infedele’ and ‘Fra dubbi affetti miei’ imaginatively, all while singing with the rapt absorption that is his hallmark. His aristocratic utterance in the Act Three accompagnato ‘Son stanco, ingiusti Numi di soffrir,’ borrowed from Act Three of Händel's Siroe, is communicative of profound emotions, and his performance of ‘Vo disperato a morte,’ an aria extracted from Act Three of Hasse's 1738 Tito Vespasiano, is sensational. Most impressive is the sincerity with which Mr. Cenčić sings Siroe’s final aria, ‘Se l’amor tuo mi rendi.’ On stage and on disc, Mr. Cenčić has continually proved himself to be an artist of uncommon perceptiveness. In Siroe, too, he finds the soul of his character in the music and inhabits it unforgettably.

That Johann Adolf Hasse was an important composer is a fact that is finally gaining acceptance beyond the ranks of musicologists and well-informed musicians. As recently as a decade ago, the notion of any of Hasse’s operas being recorded by DECCA would have seemed ridiculous. Siroe, re di Persia is not the most persuasive of Hasse’s operas, but it receives a persuasive performance on this recording despite decisions that diminish the rectitude of the enterprise. Qualms aside, this Siroe, re di Persia is a valuable addition to the expanding Hasse discography and a documentation of the work of some of today’s best period-adept singers.

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse - SIROE, RE DI PERSIA (DECCA 478 6768)Hasse by Hand: the manuscript of the Sinfonia from the 1733 version of Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia in the collection of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Stats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden