Handel Festival Göttingen: Siroe, Re di Persia Back

It is fascinating how certain works by even the most distinguished artists never quite seem to reach us. The never-ending process of formation of the Western musical canon perpetuates a logic of selection and exclusion even within a repertory that was, up to a few decades ago, a stranger to operatic stages. These days, when productions of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Serse or even Ariodante flourish at the most diverse European and American houses, among Handel’s forty operas there are still many that rarely see a concert performance, let alone the operatic stage. It is perfectly understandable that the masterpieces mentioned above should be performed with increasing frequency. But in cases of a Handel opera such as Siroe, Re di Persia, it takes an especially inventive and creative approach to remove the aura of the lack of dramatic viability the work has accumulated in its reception so far. Even such authorities as Winton Dean, even though delineating the specific context from which the opera sprang and recognising the mastery of the individual arias, considered Siroe a somewhat problematic opera as a whole.

It is interesting to speculate why Handel set an abridged version of Pietro Metastasio’s second libretto. Scholars may be right that it might have been a matter of prestige to introduce the young rising star librettist to London audiences after Siroe, Re di Persia had been set no less than four times all over Italy since 1726. At the same time, the needs of the constellation of operatic stars at the Royal Academy of Music needed to be met. Siroe, with its two dramatically and musically equal but highly contrasted heroines, vying for the love of a noble hero who takes the blows of destiny with moral steadfastness, was another perfect vehicle for the primo uomo Senesino and the “Rival Queens” Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. Nevertheless, Handel and Metastasio sometimes seem like a bad match. Nicola Haym, once again in the role of the adaptor of libretti for Handel, cut half of the recitatives, which was normal practice since the London audiences were naturally less able to follow the original Italian. Metastasio’s arias had been left unaltered in most cases, which produced an unusual contrast between the abridged recitatives outlining the dramatic situation somewhat sketchily, and the highly abstract aria verses Metastasio was renowned for, including numerous “nautical” simile arias that compare the characters to ships and storms. Unlike in some other Handel operas, the arias often do not grow out of the dramaturgy as characters’ individual outbursts, but are marked by a peculiar detachment, which is sometimes paralleled by the composer in a somewhat restrained musical setting.

Some scholars, seeking out the dramatist in the composer, approached his music as if it were assuming the role of character portrayal in classical dramaturgy. In the case of Siroe, Re di Persia, this will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. The basic dramatic conflict deals with the Persian king Cosroe, who favours his sycophantic vicious younger son Medarse to Siroe, the rightful heir to the throne. Siroe is loyal to his father in spite of a somewhat conflicted relationship and the plot is complicated by the intervention of the female characters, both in love with him. While Laodice, Cosroe’s mistress, doesn’t refrain from accusing Siroe of rape to take revenge on his rejection, Emira, in male disguise as ‘Idaspe’, becomes the king’s confidant and attempts to manipulate Siroe’s affections for her in order to carry out her revenge on Cosroe for the murder of her father. As valiant as he is, Siroe might seem a somewhat “passive” hero. Similarly, Haym’s and Handel’s reduction of the role of Cosroe to three arias will render him less of a tragic figure and more of a blundering tyrant. Winton Dean formulated his impressions almost apologetically in relation to the composer: We are faced with Handel at the height of his powers struggling with a recalcitrant libretto and an ungainly bunch of characters. They spend so much time deceiving each other, or being deceived, or both, that none emerges in a strong positive light’ (Dean, Handel’s Operas : 1726-1741 , p. 93).

Amazingly enough, the G öttingen performance of the opera succeeds in showing that Handel’s setting consciously turns the above mentioned “problems” to the advantage of the overall design of the opera. For the composer was a man of the theatre and relied on his performers leaving an individual stamp on their respective roles, so that the role of Siroe, far from being insufficiently active, was exactly the kind Senesino would shine in. Musically, his role has received the highest level of recognition, especially the sublime prison scene in the third act. It makes all the more sense to have his brother Medarse, as his exact opposite, sing musically light-hearted, often virtuosic arias in the major mode, even though or precisely because he sings of nasty things such as fratricide. At the same time, the fact that the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi was particularly convincing in rage arias such as his first two in the opera by no means diminishes but probably only increases the impact of his third act aria ‘Gelido in ogni vena’, causing both the character’s and the spectators’ blood to run cold at the impossibility of revoking the execution of Siroe, as indeed the libretto itself indicates.

Handel’s treatment of Emira and Laodice is even more interesting insofar as he seems to take the strategies of evasion that he had been developing since the first joint London appearance of Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni in Alessandro in 1726 to a new level. Not only Handel, but also the other composers of the Royal Academy of Music had to make sure that the two primadonnas had the same quality and quantity of music, that neither of them stole the affection of the audience and that they took turns from opera to opera in winning the love of the leading man. In Siroe, Re di Persia he had a libretto at hand that didn’t shy away from the possibility of presenting all of the characters except the titular one in a negative light, and the numerous changes of heart that both Emira and Laodice undergo over the course of the opera succeed in making both appear more human and – from today’s perspective – even more hysterical than opera seria characters usually are. Handel reacted to this ambivalence in characterization with arias of an exquisitely subdued, almost understated nature. Excepting her grand, pathetic lament ‘Mi lagnerò tacendo’, four out of six of Laodice’s arias are upbeat simile arias in the major, following dramatic situations that are unfavourable to her, as if she was trying to reassert rational control of her bad fate. Emira is an even more complex character in her dissembling. Her first two arias have multiple addressees, Siroe often being the genuinely intended one, and their musical tone is deceivingly bittersweet, as ambiguous as her character is. In the second act she seems to lose her composure in the somewhat hurried ‘Sgombra dell’anima tutto il timor’ (II. 4), which follows an unsuccessful attempt on Cosroe’s life, and which rounds the act off with melancholic longing for the simple life of a shepherdess, her only chance at introspection in the opera. The third act assigns her two arias after the resolution of the dramatic conflict and the union with Siroe, the first one (‘Ch’io mai possa’) somewhat bleak, and the second one almost exaggerated in its jubilatory coloraturas that seem much more appropriate to Laodice’s arias.

Typically, a music review will advance a preconceived notion or interpretation of a work against which an actual performance of it is then measured. In this case, things worked out rather differently: in fact, my earlier, somewhat vague perception of Siroe (acquired by the examination of the score, listening to recordings and reading what little has been written on the opera) has been transformed by the Göttingen performance into a much more nuanced understanding of the opera! This was achieved equally on the musical and the theatrical level. Laurence Cummings, the festival’s artistic director, led the excellent Festspielorchester Göttingen, consisting of musicians from different acclaimed early music ensembles, on a level that mirrors the best achievements of the movement for historically informed performance practice. The acoustics of the Deutsches Theater Göttingen were ideal for the string chamber corpus counting no more than five first violins, supplemented by the oboes as prescribed in the score, but occasionally alternating with recorders (an artistic freedom Siroe can allow) and a discrete use of the theorbo as part of the continuo group, which was never in any way stylistically excessive as it sometimes happens even with the most renowned ensembles. The tempi were well paced, swift but never too fast, and always to the advantage of the dramatic unfolding of Handel’s music. Even when one was left with the impression that the soloist in question would have had technical difficulties executing the coloraturas at a slightly faster pace, the arias were rounded off as an integral part of a unified reading of the score.

The respect for the work shown by the conductor and the director was most evident in the fact that the recitatives were hardly, perhaps only insignificantly, cut and that only one aria, Siroe’s ‘Se l’amor tuo mi rendi’ on brotherly love from the third act, was dropped. Even the usual practice of inserting an interval into the middle of the second act rather than having two was done very convincingly, with the placing of an instrumental interlude at the end of the dramatic recitative leading to the culmination of Cosroe’s rage, so that Siroe’s ‘Mi credi infedele’ was moved to the beginning of the second part. This is of special importance, as even when it comes to more widely performed Handel operas, conductors and especially directors often take the easy way out by dropping arias they don’t know what to do with, under the pretext of reducing the length of the performance. The da capo sections of the arias offer an especially fertile field for directorial intervention, and alas, the practice of reducing a tripartite form to bipartite is still not fully obliterated. However, in deciding to retain all of the da capo repeats, director Immo Karaman displayed supreme craftsmanship. Less creative directors easily fall into a pattern of inactivity or impose on themselves the task of developing new ideas every time. Karaman opted for diversity, from highly contrasting da capo repeats with changes of scene and character, to a simpler consolidation of the basic idea from the first part of the aria. Nothing was forced, and every moment of the scenic action seemed carefully thought through.

The only elements of classical dance in the production were the occasional ballet steps of Bettina Fritsche, portraying a chambermaid in the aristocratic milieu where the action takes place. As someone who is present all the way through the dramatic action, but not directly involved in it, her presence created an air of detachment. The contribution of choreographer Fabian Posca was much more impressive in the scenic movement of the singers, not in the least dance-like, but detailed and complex nonetheless. Timo Dentler and Okarina Peter created the set as an aristocratic manor on a revolving stage, consisting of a staircase and a few simple rooms on two levels, but lending the action a broad spaciousness that almost seemed in contradiction with the relatively small stage and auditorium of the Deutsches Theater. The stylish costumes created by the same team evoked fashion trends of the mid-20th century, lending the whole evening a chique atmosphere rarely seen in German opera houses. But most importantly, they served a purpose, even though it might have seemed gratuitous for Aleksandra Zamojska (Laodice) to change into as much as ten evening dresses and night gowns over the course of the evening.

Even this makes perfect sense in the production. Unlike Emira in the interpretation of British soprano Anna Dennis, who spends all the scenes except the last one in drag, Laodice is the only character who can exercise her femininity. The young Polish soprano relished the opportunity to play up the character’s fragility and to use it as a weapon, conjuring an atmosphere reminiscent of classical Hollywood melodrama. It is amazing how pointless the label “lyric soprano” seems when, being unable to compare the voices of Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni as their contemporaries did, we pit Dennis’s and Zamojska’s renditions of their respective roles against each other. Karaman’s direction underlined the vocal and musical contrast by creating an even starker contrast of character between the two conflicted and desperate women. No less intensely portrayed were the male characters. Antonio Giovannini gave Medarse’s genuine viciousness a credible background in his childish egotism, sending shivers down the spectators’ spines as he was effortlessly rolling playful coloraturas while maliciously searching his father’s desk for drugs or looking for a match to set his brother on fire. His portrayal of the role proves that a countertenor of fairly modest capacities in terms of volume and technique can achieve respectable musical results, improving the impression with good acting skills.

The most moving performances were offered by young singers portraying Cosroe and his son Siroe, Lisandro Abadie and Yosemeh Adjei. Having the German countertenor of Ghanaian roots wear a blond wig certainly had its risks, but even this detail felt in place as there were traces of James Dean in his portrayal of the titular character. Adjei as Siroe managed to imbue a character that looks exceedingly sensitive and self-pitying “on paper” with amazing vigour. His resentment and suppressed anger, pointed against the authority of the father, but also against the other characters, especially his beloved Emira, surfaced with increasing passion, leading to his brutal incarceration in the manor’s basement, which is what the tragic dimension of opera seria is all about: an extreme endangerment of the guiltless hero’s physical and mental wellbeing. His penetrating voice, rich in the head register, was ideally suited to a less heroic Senesino role than, say, Giulio Cesare or Orlando. I understood much better why after his final repudiation by his father, the physically (obviously he had been subjected to torture) and mentally broken Siroe can do no more than to place his life in the hands of Emira in the aria ‘Fra dubbi affetti miei’ (II. 8).

Although the role of King Cosroe is musically much smaller, the Argentinian bass Lisandro Abadie approached it as if he were a tragic figure of Shakespearean dimensions. Rightly so, since the character grows into a genuine King Lear figure with sons instead of daughters. For not only does Cosroe make the treacherous Medarse his heir, he finds a surrogate son in Emira as “Idaspe”. Abadie demonstrated brilliantly that a studious, dedicated approach to the role can make Stanislavski’s maxim about “no small parts” apply equally to opera. In doing so, he made a strong case for the essentially inter-textual nature of contemporary opera performance. The way Cosroe’s stern patriarchal facade gradually dissolves under the burden of age and loneliness and a desire to be loved was almost naturalistically portrayed through growing signs of both physical weakness and dementia. Naturally, the audience’s hearts went out to the king as Abadie folded an imaginary baby into a blanket while singing the above mentioned ‘Gelido in ogni vena’ with the utmost expressivity.

The G öttingen Siroe goes to show that Regietheater in opera can concentrate first and foremost on the complex interactions between characters on stage, without necessarily reducing them to abstract concepts or avoiding an interpretive stance altogether. For as much as we are drawn into the world of the protagonists and get to take them much more seriously than a superficial glance would allow, Karaman also holds his distance, especially in the always problematic realisation of the lieto fine. Instead of overcomplicating the happy ending by emphasizing the tragic irreconcilability of the conflict, we are allowed to distance ourselves from it. While she is singing her final jubilant aria, Emira can’t bring herself to cut the cake brought in to celebrate the reconciliation, and at a certain point during the final coro one is almost led to believe she might have poisoned the lot, but the opera instead ends in an unspectacular renewal of tension between the protagonists. This in turn doesn’t make the whole evening less engaging and one should by all means congratulate the whole Göttingen team for having confidence in a less known Handel opera and for entrusting the task to an enthusiastic, hardworking group of performers. Let us hope that this production will not only be a landmark in the reception of Siroe, but also an example of how well historically informed performance practice and Regietheater in opera can work together and inspire each other.

Siroe, Re di Persia will run at the Handel Festival Göttingen until May 20th 2013.

Production photograph © Theodoro da Silva ( Ross Ramgobin (Arasse), Lisandro Abadie (Cosroe), Yosemeh Adjei (Siroe), Bettina Fritsche (dancer)).