24 May 2014
Young singers must start their careers somewhere, but it seems odd to choose some of the most difficult music ever written to make that start. In his London operas of the mid-1720's Handel was composing for the three best vocalists in Europe – Senesino, Cuzzona, and Faustina – and he tried to stretch them. It's not very surprising that when a company of inexperienced second-rate singers take on one of these operas, they flounder.
Take, for instance, the Act III aria "Torrente cresciuto", written for Francesa Cuzzoni, who sang second lady in "Siroe". It is full of fast runs and awkward leaps which demand tight control, precise articulation, and (ideally) stylish ornamentation. What it gets from Aleksandra Zamojska is scooping, yelping, approximate intonation, and woolly diction. She gets through the A section more or less intact, but – presumably to celebrate this achievement – turns the da capo into a Natalie Dessay type high-wire act, using notes Cuzzona never sang, and well beyond her own capacity. Needless to say she never even pretends a trill. It is cringe-making and the worst moment on the recording, as she is the worst singer; but it is a close-run thing. Anna Dennis has more power, but even less agility and equally bad diction. The falsettists are better technically, but in terms of tone and register control they are still in Hinge & Bracket territory. The basses are adequate, but no more.
I am severe on these singers, I know; and I have this much sympathy for them, that they have to sing this extreme music while running around the stage in their underwear, covered in fake blood, taking showers, simulating sex acts, and making breakfast – or whatever else the stage director has dreamt up. They needed courage and stamina – but they also needed a level of vocal technique which they do not have and show no signs of achieving. They struggle through Handel like the storm-tossed mariners he often makes them sing about. Not one of them gives any pleasure to the listener.
Having said that, I confess to finding some satisfaction in this set, if only in incidental respects.
Technically the recording – made by West German Radio - is of demonstration quality. From the first note of the overture we are obviously in a theatre, and the subsequent balance of instruments and voices is entirely lifelike. This is so rare in Handel opera recordings as to be enjoyable in itself.
Musically – as opposed to vocally – this "Siroe" is irreproachable. Cummings has a real feel for the nobility of Handel's style, and takes the big numbers with a swing, but without letting them run away. He knows the difference between rhythmic impetus and speed – this too is rare in contemporary Handel performance. I just wish someone had tuned his harpsichord between the acts.
One could not possibly, however, recommend this set, even if Accent were charging less than a full three-disc price for what is, after all, the tape of a radio broadcast which includes all the stage noise between and during the arias. We must be grateful not to have to watch this production; listening to it is quite bad enough.
Laurence Cummings seems to have a hard job on his hands at Gottingen. The last notable production there was the 2009 "Admeto". McGegan's farewell "Teseo" in 2011 was nearly as bad as this "Siroe", though it had better singers. I expect money is the problem, but there are excellent Handel stylists around who might not charge Bartoli prices – Julia Lezhneva springs to mind, the perfect Faustina stand-in, or, of the next generation up, the Canadian Julie Boulianne, or the German Franziska Gottwald, either of whom would represent Senesino very well, if Cummings wanted to drop the now-dated Gottingen commitment to falsettists. Whether these ladies would care to sing in their underwear is not for me to say.
Footnote for Hard-core Handelians
Cummings uses the full text of "Siroe", but omits Senesino's Act III aria " Se l' amor tuo mi rendi" – unless this dropped off the disc for technical reasons. He uses Andreas Spering’s performance material. In his notes David Vickers disparages the other two recordings of “Siroe”, presumably because they cut the recits extensively, but even the US version is better that this one vocally, and the Spering "Siroe" – with Ann Hallenberg in the title role – is in another class entirely (and it includes the missing aria).