Siroe, Re de Persia – George Frideric Handel

Siroe, Re de Persia – George Frideric Handel

Arias from Siroe can be found on the following recordings:

Handel – The Rival Queens

Glorious Handel – Soprano Arias

Online references on Siroe

Period instrument orchestras used to be few and far between. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1952 that Nikolaus Harnoncourt founded Concentus Musicus Wien to give historically informed performances of antique music. And then, of course, Christopher Hogwood’s house band, The Academy of Ancient Music, began making inroads in 1973, followed by many others. Conductors like Roger Norrington, John Eliot Gardiner, and Rene Jacobs went big time in this repertory.

Prior to that, no one, other than scholars, seemed to care. Violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler wrote pieces which he ascribed to Vivaldi and other Baroque masters. And though these may have brought the house down, they certainly weren’t musically correct. Stokowski’s transcriptions of venerated figures like Bach enraged purists. How dare he cut or add instrumental lines? Well, we’ve come a long way since then and period instrument orchestras, as well as soloists specializing in this rarefied repertory, are almost, but not quite, a dime a dozen, and not just the aforementioned ones.

Which brings us to the undisputed star of this evening, or supporting player, if you will, The Venice Baroque Orchestra, which has achieved a formidable reputation since it was founded in 1997 by conductor-harpsichordist-scholar Andrea Marcon. "Supporting player" because this nineteen piece band functioned in that capacity for a cast of five singers in Handel’sopera seria, Siroe, Re di Persia. The Venetian orchestra is credited with giving the first production of this piece since it was premiered by Handel’s company at London’s King’s Theatre on February17, 1728, just twelve days after the composer finished it. Marcon’s new production was achieved with the co-operation of Teatro La Fenice four years ago, but not produced there because of the fire which ravaged that legendary house. Handel’s opera was his first to a libretto by the celebrated poet Pietro Metastsio ((1698-1782), whose work was set by all of the greatest 18th century composers, including Mozart.

The formality of opera seria is a bit of a stretch for modern audiences weaned on Puccini’s over the top verismo and Wagner’s "endless melody". Though the orchestra shares equal footing with the singers, the closed form can make the whole thing seem static, even though the story has as many romantic plots and counterplots as Dynasty. But that perceived weakness, to modern ears at least, is what keeps it afloat. Handel, after all, wrote it for several highly virtuosic singers of his day–the great castrato Senesino sang the lead, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni played Princess Laodice, and mezzo Faustina Bordoni, Emira. These two sopranos were serious rivals and that rivalry ended up in an onstage catfight where they clawed each other’s wigs to bits on the closing night of the previous season.

Marcon’s singers in these parts–the German Simone Kermes and the Czech Katerina Beranova–did not disappoint. Vocal agility, as well as loads of temperament, are what these roles call for, and both delivered the goods. Kermes, who studied with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, seems to have learned lots about dramatic projection and interpretational subtlety from them and her ornamentation was stunning. She’s a true coloratura and she did wonders with both rectitatives and arias–especially her house afire, "Or mi perdo di speranza " ( "One moment I lose all hopes"), where she toyed with a pink balloon heart.

Beranova, who started rather weakly, improved as the night went on, and dispatched her duties with aplomb. And though the Italian-Argentine mezzo was announced at the outset as having a cold, it didn’t seem to dampen her dramatic projection very much, outside of a slight nasality; and she sang her intensely chromatic air, " Deggio morire, o stelle " ("O stars, I must die"), with great conviction, and movingly, too.

Handel didn’t stint on the male parts either. Swiss basso Robert Koller, as King Cosroe, looked and sounded very regal indeed, especially in his showstopping lament, "Gelido, in ogni vena " ("The blood in my veins runs cold"), with detached notes in the strings. Affairs of state really did seem to weigh him down. Countertenor Roberto Balconi, as Medarse, was equally impressive in his falsetto part, and colored it knowingly.

Aiding and abetting the whole evening, in the acoustically challenging confines of Zellerbach’s 2000 seat concrete with stucco house, was Marcon’s band, which responded with both tenderness and fire, from the four-part overture to the closing vocal quintet. The score calls for oboe 1 and 2, violins 1, 2, and 3, and a basso continuo here comprised of Marcon and Massimiliano Raschietti on harpsichord; Francesco Galligioni and Daniele Cernuto, cello; Alessandro Sbrogio, bass; Ivano Zanenghi, lute, and Evangelina Mascardi, theorbo ( large lute ). The result validated the rightness of Handel’s scoring, which gives it a rich, yet infinitely supple sound. A less imaginative composer would probably have added horns to spice up the mix, but Handel did wonders with a carefully restricted palette. Marcon’s strings played with both subtlety and verve, and the entire band’s sound was wonderfully blended throughout. Indeed the conductor proved what should hardly need proving anymore–that period music can be grand without any pushing. You don’t need big forces with music this good.

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Michael McDonagh is a San Francisco-based poet, playwright, filmmaker, and writer on the arts. His poems have appeared in many places including Stanford's poetry mag "Mantis," and he reads quite frequently at San Francisco's "Sacred Grounds Cafe." Seven of his poems have been set to music--six, by Lisa Scola Prosek--www.scolavox.com--were performed by her on piano, with soprano Diane Landau, at San Francisco's "Goat Hall" in 2001. Another poem--"night and trees," set by the late composer Gerhard Samuel was performed by the members of the www.sfcco.org and can be heard on its site. His work for the theatre includes "touch and go--for three voices," which "Zack's Common Cultural Practice" performed at San Francisco's "Venue 9" in 1998, and "Sight Unseen," a theatre piece for one performer, which Sophia Holman -- now www.sophieellsberg.com-- world premiered at New York's www.bowerypoetryclub.org in 2011. McDonagh directed a film version with German actor Hermann Eppert in Berlin in 2013, which can be seen online. He performed a live version with pianist Ric Louchard playing Satie's "4th Gnossienne"--followed by a sequence of his poems, and a showing of Eppert's version at the "Berkeley Arts Festival" in 2014. His collaborations with artists of other disciplines includes two poem-picture books with San Francisco-based painter www.garybukovnik.com--"Before I Forget" and "once--they're planning a third,"--and the film "Alex North Viva Zapata! 2010," realized with the videographers Donovan Bauer, Peter Hibdon, and Joe Luis Garcia Nava, which Alejandro Escuer's www.onixensemble.com under conductor Rodrigo Macias played live in Pueblo, Mexico in 2010. His writing on the literary, visual, and musical arts have appeared in many places including the "The San Francisco Chronicle," "The San Francisco Review of Books," "The Los Angeles Times," "The Advocate," "Stagebill," and "Keyboard." He has also written catalogs for two arts shows--Cal State Hayward's "Contemporary Romanticism," and Matt Phillips' eightieth birthday show at www.meyerovich.com. He has contributed to www.alexnorthmusic.com, and www.classical-music-review.org and regularly contributes to www.ebar.com, www.culturevulture.net, www.sequenza21.com, www.21st-centurymusic.com, and served as president of the Bay Area's Duke Ellington Society for many years. Currently he is working on a sequence of poems, and "Anna and Vronsky,"--after Tolstoy--and meditates writing a fractured piece on love called "The Scene of the Crime."