★★★★☆

Editor’s Choice: Opera, June 2015

Johann Adolph Hasse’s Siroe (Dresden, 1763) was a setting of Metastasio’s hit libretto about an otherwise utterly unmemorable King of Persia. Kavadh II was king of the Sasanian Empire for all of one year in 628 after revolting and overthrowing his father. Vinci, Vivaldi and Handel all had a stab at it, and Hasse’s original version starred Farinelli and Caffarelli, but what we have here is his later reworking of the opera.

It’s one of those ‘make-you-want-to-shout-at-them’ plots. It seems everybody except his son Siroe is plotting against tyrannical King Cosroe, but who is it that the silly old sod suspects? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Siroe. And, of course, the latter is the only person so honourable that he prefers to stay schtum rather than betray the others. 

Hasse reveals himself a master of baroque form, perhaps lacking Handel’s memorability, but his equal in structural sonics and dramatic ambition. Occasionally he makes a musical wrong call – an over-passive aria might follow a recitative that should imply a number with a bit more musical spunk – and the modern restorers have had recourse to a couple of inserts from other works in the final act to help things along.

Lively orchestral contributions are care of Greek maestro George Petrou and his spirited period band Anima Aeterna. Having followed them from their early outings on MDG (superb accounts of Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Tamerlano), I’ve yet to hear them put a foot wrong. Tempi are perfectly judged and Petrou mines the recitatives for every dramatic nugget.

Leading the charge is Croatian countertenor, and recent star of Brisbane’s Baroque Festival, Max Emanuel Cenčic. Yes, you want to slap his Siroe for his stoical stiff-upper-lippery, but he delivers his series of arias with committed passion and a beautiful mastery of legato. Juan Sancho is fearless, firm-toned and appropriately gruff as his father, the tetchy, tenorial Cosroe. 

Mary-Ellen Nesi makes a feisty Princess disguised as a vengeful warrior, while Julia Lezhneva as the King’s mistress (who secretly fancies his son enough to accuse the latter of dirty doings with respect to her honour), impresses with pinpoint accuracy in a series of showstoppers. Franco Fagioli as the duplicitous younger son is suitably oily, though vocally he can resemble a dowager clutching her pearls (if you know what I mean). Recorded sound is first rate, voices forward, but plenty of depth allowing you to hear everything down to the harpsichord, even in tutti textures.

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