223. Siroe re di Persia (Hasse)

  • Opera seria in 3 acts
  • Composer: Johann Adolph Hasse
  • Libretto: Metastasio
  • First performed: Teatro Malvezzi, Bologna, 2nd May 1733. Revised: Opernhaus am Zwinger, Dresden, 3rd August 1763.

1733 version:

COSROE, King of Persia, in love with LaodiceTenorFilippo Giorgio
SIROE, elder son of Cosroe, in love with EmiraSoprano castratoFarinelli
MEDARSE, younger son of CosroeSoprano castratoCaffarelli
EMIRA, princess of Cambay, in love with Siroe, but disguised as a man and going by the name IdaspeContraltoVittoria Tesi
LAODICE, sister of Arasse, in love with SiroeSopranoAnna Maria Peruzzini
ARASSE, general of the Persian armies and Siroe’s friendContraltoElisabetta Uttini

SETTING: Seleucia, 628


Rating: 4 out of 5.

The English musicologist Charles Burney called Hasse “the great Apollo…” The castrato Mancini called him “the Father of music (Padre della musica)…” Johann Adolph Hasse (1699–1783), Il Sassone, was once one of the most celebrated musicians in Europe – “the favourite opera composer of Italy and Germany from 1730 to 1755”, Burney wrote. But after his death, the composer fell into obscurity. In the mid-19th century, 80 years after Hasse’s death, Fétis (Biographie universelle des musiciens) commented: “Few artists have had so much success, or more renown than Hasse; there are few who are more forgotten now.” But does the man who wrote this deserve to be forgotten?

Like Handel, Hasse was born in Saxony. He began his career as a tenor on the Hamburg stage, in the operas of Keiser, then went to Naples in the 1720s. Instructed by Scarlatti and Porpora, he swiftly became a popular opera composer; his version of Artaserse (1730), premièred two weeks after Leonardo Vinci’s version, made him famous throughout Europe. He delighted the crowned heads of Europe; he was composer to the court of Dresden from the 1730s, maestro di cappella to Augustus II the Strong of Poland and Saxony, and to Frederick II the Great of Prussia, and wrote works for Friedrich Augustus II and the Empress Maria Theresa. From 1750, he was Vinci’s successor as the leading Metastasian composer, often the first to set the poet’s libretti: in Kaminski’s words, Hasse was “the paragon of opera seria”.

Hasse was a composer of the galant period, halfway between the Baroque and the classical. His style combines florid and virtuosic vocal writing with elegant orchestral writing; and some of his arias sound remarkably like Mozart’s. Indeed, David Charlton recognises Hasse as “a founder of the Classical style, a reaction against the complexities of the seventeenth century”.

Hasse was enormously prolific: by his own reckoning, he composed more than 100 operas, and an immense quantity of church music, oratorios, cantatas, instrumental music, and lots of occasional pieces, serenades, etc. “His fecundity was prodigious,” Fétis commented.

“He may without injury to his brethren, be allowed to be as superior to all other lyric composers, as Metastasio is to all other lyric poets,” Burney wrote.

The most natural, elegant and judicious composer of vocal music … equally a friend to poetry and the voice, he discovers as much judgment as genius, in expressing words, as well as in accompanying those sweet and tender melodies, which he gives to the singer. Always regarding the voice as the first object of attention in a theatre, he never suffocates it, by the learned jargon of a multiplicity of instruments and subjects; but is as careful of preserving its importance as a painter, of throwing the strongest light upon the capital figure of his piece.

Burney

But later generations were less impressed. Fétis suggested that Hasse was fortunate to appear when the foremost place in dramatic composition was there for the taking – Scarlatti was old; Handel’s operas were little known outside England; Porpora’s operas lacked energy; and Pergolesi had not yet written his Serva padrona or his Olimpiade.

“He pleased in Italy by a stronger harmony that he brought there from Italy, and in Germany by a pure taste for melody that he borrowed from the Italians,” Fétis wrote. “His talent was for the correct expression of words. His songs, full of sweetness, are accomplished and well-formed. In the expression of tender sentiments, his music had an irresistible charm; but in general, it lacked effect in energetic sentiment, and its forms were little varied. His harmony, less robust, less rich in modulations than that of the German composers of his time, later seemed weak, compared to the brilliance of Mozart and Haydn’s music. Such are the causes that made Hasse’s successes in the theater, and those which since then have caused him to be forgotten.”

A composer so closely associated with Metastasio also seemed old-fashioned in the age of Gluck’s reforms. Burney writes that Hasse and Metastasio, “this poet and musician are the two halves of what, like Plato’s Androgyne, once constituted a whole; for as they are equally possessed of the same characteristic marks of true genius, taste, and judgement; so propriety, consistency, clearness, and precision, are alike the inseparable companions of both”. In Vienna, Hasse and Metastasio stood at the head of a party opposing Gluck and Calzabigi’s reforms, Burney reported: “The first, regarding all innovations as quackery, adhere to the ancient form of the musical drama, in which the poet and musician claim equal attention from an audience; the bard in the recitatives and narrative parts; and the composer in the airs, duos and choruses. The second party depend more on theatrical effects, propriety of character, simplicity of diction, and of musical execution, than on, what they style flowery description, superfluous similes, sententious and cold morality, on one side, with tiresome symphonies, and long divisions, on the other.”

After Hasse’s death, none of his operas were performed for two centuries. He does not even warrant a mention in Félix Clément’s compendious Musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours (1878).

But Hasse has been rediscovered in the Baroque boom of the last four decades. William Christie led the way with a 1986 recording of Cleofide. Since then, various operas have been recorded, including Attilio regolo (1997), Ruggiero (2000), Artaserse (2012), Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra and Didone abbandonata (2013), and Enea in Caonia (2020). Countertenors have recorded albums of Hasse arias: Valer Sabadus’s Hasse: Reloaded (2012) and Max Emanuel Cenčić’s superb Rokoko (2014).

For more information on Hasse, see Classical Net and the dedicated Hasse site, Il Sassone (in French).


Max Emanuel Cenčić is one of my favourite singers; as well as having a beautiful, honeyed voice, he has resurrected several 18th century operas, directed them, and even set up a Baroque festival in Bayreuth (blasphemy for Wagnerians!). He is the driving force behind a 2014 recording of Siroe re di Persia, featuring some of this generation’s finest Baroque singers: Julia Lezhneva, Mary-Ellen Nesi, and the extraordinary Franco Fagioli. It is a feast of vocal virtuosity, and was rightly acclaimed as “a triumph” (BBC Music Magazine).

Siroe re di Persia is an archetypal Metastasio opera seria. It takes place in the distant past in an exotic country (seventh century Persia); almost all the characters are royal or highborn, and include a naïve prince, a tyrant / heavy father (tenor), a vengeful woman (cross-dressing as a man, a must for any good Baroque opera), a scheming sibling; and the story concerns political and court intrigue: conspiracy, attempted assassination, usurpation, uprisings, and a hero falsely accused.

Prince Siroe is a bewildered young man. His father, the Shah of Persia, Cosroe, has disinherited him; his girlfriend, Emira, wants him to kill his father; another girl, Laodice, accused him of rape; his brother, Medarse, wants him dead; and now his father wants him dead. Should he stay loyal to his father, or take the throne? That is only Act I. Over the next two acts, Metastasio skilfully knots up and unravels his plot, before the inevitable lieto fine (happy ending).

It’s a good plot, too. Metastasio’s plots use the same ingredients, but they’re logical, and theatrically effective. I’m particularly struck by this because I saw Handel’s Alcina last week. The melodies are wonderful, and it was a very enjoyable evening, but dramatic tension is not among its virtues. (You can read my review for Limelight Magazine here.)

Metastasio’s libretto was loosely based on history: Siroe is Sheroe, or Kavad II, the elder son of Khosrow II, King of Persia (r. 590–628). But the real Kavad was much less sympathetic. He overthrew his father in a coup d’état, and had him killed. He also murdered his brothers and half-brothers. Slaughtering his family didn’t do him much good, though. He died from plague nine months after taking the throne.

Hasse wrote his first version of Siroe for Bologna in 1733, featuring the castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli. It was a success, performed 25 times in Italy, before reaching the rest of Europe. The arias, Burney thought, were “certainly written in the best taste of the times. There is not, indeed, the bold and vigorous invention, the richness of harmony, or ingenuity of accompaniment, which abound in the operas of Handel; but with respect to clearness, grace, and elegance, there is infinite merit in these early songs of Hasse.”

Three decades later, Hasse revised the work for a performance in Dresden in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The work was performed on 3 August for Frederick Augustus II’s name-day and the feast-day of the Polish Order of the White Eagle. The Prussians had turned the court theatre into an ammunition dump; and when the king died in October, the opera house closed once more. Hasse and his wife quit Dresden and settled in Vienna for the rest of their lives.

It is the Dresden version that Cenčić uses. Hasse had intended to write a new score, but only revised 14 of the 21 arias; the other seven were reused from the earlier version. There are no ensembles, and only one chorus at the end.

Many of the finest arias are in Act I: Laodice’s “O placido il mare” (allegro), a brilliant virtuoso piece, with fiendish coloratura, stunningly performed by Julia Lezhneva (YouTube); Siroe’s “La sorte mia tiranna” (largo), a moving and beautiful aria di sostenuto, expressing noble suffering and reproach (YouTube); and Medarse’s magnificent storm aria, “Fra l’orror della tempesta”, which brings the act to an exciting close. Franco Fagioli is flabbergastingly good, as ever. (And Nesi ain’t bad, either.)

The highlights of Act II are Laodice’s lovely “Mi lagnerò tacendo” (YouTube); Medarse’s “Tu decidi del mio fato”, the only aria in a minor key, in which he professes his willingness to die for his father (hypocrisy? genuine? But tender and a touch wistful) (YouTube: Nesi); and Arasse’s excellent, proto-Mozartean “Se pugnar non sai col fato” (YouTube).

Act III begins with a couple of fun allegro di molto rage arias: Laodice’s “Se il caro figlio” (YouTube), contrasting the tyrant Cosroe (who kills his son) with the tiger (which defends its cub); and Emira’s tempestuous, frenzied “Che furia, che mostro” (YouTube). Cosroe’s lament for his son, “Gelido in ogni vena” (YouTube), is beautiful, but I much prefer Vivaldi’s setting of the same words in Farnace.

In short, this is an excellent opera from the time when Hasse was the most praised composer in Europe. Listen to it and marvel at the fantastic singing, and rejoice that we live in an age when these works can be heard again. Ich liebe Hasse!

(This is a review I’ve meant to write for four years.)


Recordings

Max Emanuel Cencic (Siroe), Franco Fagioli (Medarse), Julia Lezhneva (Laodice), Juan Sancho (Cosroe), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Emira), Laureen Snouffer (Arasse), with the Armonia Atenea, conducted by George Petrou, Athens 2014. Decca 4786768.


Works consulted

  • Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), Dover 1957
  • David Charlton, “Johann Adolf Hasse”, Classical Net
  • Nicholas Clapton, notes to CD recording of Siroe re di Persia
  • Félix Clément, Les musiciens célèbres depuis le 16ème siècle jusqu’à nos jours, Paris : Librairie Hachette & Cie, 1878
  • F.-J. Fétis, Biographie universelle des musiciens (2ème édition), Paris : Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, Fils et Cie., 1869
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003

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