SIROE, RE DI PERSIA (HWV 24)
Libretto: By Nicola Haym, after Pietro Metastasio
First performance: 17th February 1728, King's Theatre, London
- Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino" (Alto-castrato)
- Faustina Bordoni (Soprano)
- Francesca Cuzzoni (Soprano)
- Antonio Baldi (Alto-castrato)
- Giuseppe Maria Boschi (Bass)
- Giovanni Battista Palmerini (Bass)
King Cosroe of Persia wants to settle the succession to the throne on his second son Medarse, passing over the popular crown prince Siroe. Emira, Princess of Cambaja, who is secretly in love with Siroe, has been living at the Persian court disguised as a man, under the name of Idaspe, since the assassination of her father Asbite at Cosroe’s hand. Siroe greets both her hopes for revenge and the protestations of love of Laodice, his father’s mistress, with a firm refusal. Indeed, he attempts to warn Cosroe of the conspiracy by means of an anonymous letter. However, he is surprised in the act of writing this, and from his hiding-place witnesses the slanders of Laodice – who accuses him of sexual assault – and his brother. Siroe gives himself up as the author of the letter, but without identifying the conspirators. While Medarse believes the throne is already within his grasp, both women are plagued by feelings of guilt.
Siroe rails at his destiny. Weary of Laodice’s overtures and Emira’s tirades of hatred, he intends to fall on his sword. But Cosroe, arriving at this point, thinks he is trying to kill ‘Idaspe’ (Emira), and has Siroe arrested. A little later, Emira’s attempt on Cosroe’s life is disturbed by Medarse. However, she once again manages to deceive Cosroe with adroit flattery. Medarse too successfully feigns readiness to sacrifice himself for his father’s well-being. In a private interview Cosroe presses his elder son to reveal the conspirators’ names, promising him in return the hand of Laodice and the throne – or, if he refuses, death. Siroe is silent. Laodice vainly beseeches ‘Idaspe’ (Emira) to intercede to save Siroe’s life.
The city is in the grip of a popular uprising in favour of Siroe. Cosroe has ordered his execution. Laodice confesses her lies to Cosroe and begs for the prince’s life, as now does Emira. Only memories of Siroe’s childhood can soften the king’s heart. Now the general, Arasse, brings news of Siroe’s death. Beside herself with hatred, Emira reveals her true identity, and confirms to the horrified Cosroe that his son was entirely guiltless. Arasse discloses to Emira that Siroe is still alive. This enables Emira to forestall a further assassination plan on the part of Medarse. Siroe pardons his brother. In the meantime rebels have forced their way into the palace. Siroe comes to his father’s aid and asks Emira to bury her hatred at last. Cosroe gives his consent to the marriage of Emira and Siroe. Siroe is crowned as the new king of Persia.
(c) harmonia mundi
Late in 1727 Handel set to work on a new opera for the 1728 winter season, again structured around the capabilities of his two leading ladies Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. However, after completing an overture, an opening chorus and six arias Genserico was abandoned. There is no record of why Handel ceased work at this point, but it is possible that he was presented with a libretto that the Academy found more interesting, or at least more likely to attract an audience. Of course Handel wasted none of the music he had already written for the rejected Genserico’ and all of it re-appeared in subsequent works.
The new libretto was to be adapted from Siroe, re di Persia the second opera seria written by Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, known more popularly as Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio had made a spectacular debut just a few years earlier in Rome, and was persuaded by the soprano Marianna Bulgarelli to give up his law studies to become a full-time poet and librettist. He was to go on to be Europe’s pre-eminent opera seria librettist, providing words for all the great composers of Italian opera. Siroe had already been set by four previous composers, including Porpora and Vivaldi, by the time Haym came to adapt it for the Royal Academy of Music in London. It is perhaps in recognition of Metastasio’s fame, and the demands of the London audience for novelty and quality, that the Academy persuaded Handel to cease work on Genserico and embark on Siroe.
As Handel was putting the finishing touches to his score, another musical work that was to have an immediate and lasting impact on the London theatre was having its premiere. John Gay’s The Beggars Opera opened at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 28th January 1728 and was an immediate and spectacular success. It ran for an unprecedented 62 consecutive performances. Mary Pendarves, Handel’s neighbour in Brook Street and a constant supporter of the composer’s works, was horrified by the public response. Having attended an early rehearsal of Siroe, she wrote to her sister: ‘…I like it extremely, but the taste of the town is so depraved, that nothing will be approved of but the burlesque. The Beggars’ Opera entirely triumphs over the Italian one…’. By the end of February she was in despair: ‘The Opera will not survive this winter…I am certain excepting some few, the Englsih have no real taste for musick; for if they had, they could not neglect an entertainment so perfect in its kind for a parcel of ballad singers. I am so peevish about it, that I have no patience.’
However, Siroe managed a respectable 18 performances, and by mid-March Mrs. Pendarves was able to record that ‘Operas are something mended within this fortnight; they are much fuller than they have been any time this winter’. Despite this slight upturn in popularity Handel was never to revive Siroe.