One of Handel's "political" operas, and one of his shortest and almost perfunctory of theatrical creations, Silla is somewhat of an enigma. Whilst recent scholarship has all but restored the original music, and a wordbook was found some considerable time ago, it is by no means certain that Handel ever performed Silla. Anthony Hicks, in his scholarly booklet to accompany the issue, opines that it may have been performed privately for the newly arrived French ambassador in June 1713. The libretto, possibly cut down from a lengthier Italian original by Giacomo Rossi, is curiously inconsistent in its characterisation of the main protagonists, particularly the name part. Silla is presented almost throughout as a most detestable dictator, inept, brutal, a sexual predator and who resigns his position for no obvious reason. All point, as Winton Dean argues, to a hastily arranged libretto that did not inspire Handel to some of his best music, and which found the composer working for the most part on auto-pilot. That said, some of the music found itself into later operas, notably 1715's Amadigi, and even 1719's Radamisto.
What of the present performance ? The recording is a live one from the London Handel Festival of 2000, under the baton of Denys Darlow, with the London Handel Orchestra, and a cast of mainly young singers. The range of the voices is predominantly high, with the sole bass of Christopher Dixon as the God, adding a little counterbalance to the high tessitura, though all the high parts seem to have a fairly even number of arias and different strengths. Indeed Dixon brings a bravura stage presence to his small walk-on part at the beginning of Act Two, encouraging the idea that he should get the chance to sink his teeth into a larger Handel role in the future. Rachel Nicholls as Silla's wife Metella, and Natasha Marsh as Flavia, has a number of moments to shine, and they generally seem to have voices suited to the period style adopted here - little vibrato, and some nicely under-stated ornamentation. As Celia Elizabeth Cragg has some good moments, particularly in her scenes with her love, Claudio, Roman knight and enemy to Silla.
There are two castrato roles (Valentini - alto; Pellegrini - soprano) in this opera, and one soprano breeches role that may have been intended for Jane Barbier who created a number of male roles for Handel in his early London period. As Lepido (Silla's henchman) Joanne Lunn does not quite have the lustre or command of phrasing to carry off the part convincingly enough. Her voice is a little too 'white' to be one of the 'baddies' though her duet with Marsh in the middle of Act Two is well done. Claudio is played by the young British countertenor Simon Baker, without the traditional countertenor 'hoot', and instead a full-bodied sound, duly agile in the Act One finale aria 'con tromba guerriera', and tender in his Act Three 'Luci belle'. In the name part we have the veteran Handelian James Bowman. Whilst his admirers (and he also) would admit that his voice is past its best, nevertheless Bowman imbues his part with sensitivity to the meaning of the words and phrasing. The coppery middle register is still full and agile, even if below the stave things are not what they were. His was an ideal choice to lead such a young cast.
So, we have here a good first recording of Handel's Silla, stylishly played, well-documented and atmospheric. Warmly recommended.