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Recording of the Week, World premiere recording of Hasse's opera, Siroe Re di Persia

Never mind the ‘Carry On Up The Khyber meets Pirates of the Caribbean’ cover– Armonia Atenea and Parnassus Arts’ resurrection of Johan Adolf Hasse’s Siroe Re di Persia is one of the finest recordings of the year. Like last year’s Vinci Artaserse, the project’s the brain-child of countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic, who sings the title-role and is also the director of a staged production of the opera that’s currently doing the rounds in Europe.

With a libretto by the prolific opera seria poet Metastasio, Siroe tells the rather convoluted tale of sibling rivalry at the ancient Persian court and offers plenty of scope for the explorations of erotic versus filial love and passion versus reason which were so popular in the eighteenth century. Hasse actually set the story twice, first for Bologna in 1733 (where the cast included the superstar castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli) and then for Dresden thirty years later, and this recording uses the latter version, with a couple of ‘insertion arias’ from works by other composers (Handel and Graun), as was common practice at the time.

Max Emanuel Cenčić
Max Emanuel Cenčić

I must admit to a slight vested interest in this project, having taken part in the modern premiere of the 1733 version back in 2008 and thought at the time how wonderful it would be to see a top-class commercial recording: even just six years ago, this seemed unlikely given that Hasse was then little more than a footnote in Grove’s History of Music. In the interim, though, the pioneering work of groups like Parnassus and the rise of a new breed of super-countertenors including Cencic and Franco Fagioli who can sing these demanding castrato roles at pitch means the time’s ripe for a reappraisal. The score’s packed with vocal fireworks and the most wonderful melodies: I caught the Presto accountant (who I think usually filters out most of the racket going on in the editorial office!) humming one of the melodies the other day after just one hearing!

Hasse makes huge technical demands of all six singers, and Parnassus have assembled an unbetterable team to bring the score to life. As King Cosroe, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho quite literally sets the bar high from the off: his opening aria ‘Se il mio paterno amore’ showcases ringing high notes (including a top E!), and also establishes the king’s volatility and insecurity. As the eponymous put-upon hero, Cencic radiates nobility and stoicism, whilst Franco Fagioli chews the scenery in the very best sense of the phrase as his scheming brother Medarse. His quick-fire coloratura and audacious plunges from stratosphere to baritone register continue to stun, but what’s equally impressive is the dramatic fire he brings to the lengthy recitatives; in fact the entire recording crackles with the energy of a staged performance.

First among equals, though, is 24-year-old Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, who pretty much steals the show as the king’s mistress Laodice. Her prodigious technique is now a given (her first aria ‘O placido il mare’ had us gaping in disbelief at her agility and diamantine top notes), but what really stands out here is the vivid characterisation of her singing. If you’ve previously found her singing a little mechanical, be prepared to reconsider once you’ve experienced the complacent sex-appeal, manipulative cattiness and, ultimately, real pathos that she brings to the role. Newcomer Laureen Snouffer also makes real impact in the rather thankless part of her brother Arasse – if her sound is less distinctive than Lezhneva’s, she yields little in the way of ease, flexibility and brio.

Siroe, then, truly deserves to be ‘praised to the skies’, as Metastasio once declared with glee – as do Armonia Atenea and all concerned with this breathtaking recording.

Max Emanuel Cencic (Siroe), Franco Fagioli (Medarse), Julia Lezhneva (Laodice), Juan Sancho (Cosroe), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Emira), Laureen Snouffer (Arasse), Armonia Atenea, George Petrou (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC