Siroe, re di Persia
Perhaps it was just bad luck that the opening of Handel's ''Siroe, Re di Persia'' on Feb. 17, 1728, at the King's Theatre, Haymarket, came less than three weeks after John Gay's ''Beggar's Opera'' began its wildly successful career in a rival London theater.
All the same, ''Siroe'' came during a prime period of Handel's operatic production for the Royal Academy. It was the first time he had set a libretto by the celebrated Pietro Metastasio (as adapted by Handel's colleague Nicola Haym), and the cast included the great castrato Senesino in the title part and the two famously argumentative sopranos Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni - even as they were being lampooned across town in Gay's ballad opera.
''Siroe'' had a respectable run of 18 performances, and that was that. Handel apparently did not touch it again, and the staging it has just been given here in the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista has been billed as an Italian premiere (for Handel's music, not for the much used Metastasio libretto) and as the work's first scenic presentation in modern times. That is a bit surprising, given that the last half-century or so has seen the steady return of Handelian opera to the standard repertory. The use of the word ''scenic'' in this case needs a little qualifying. Although the Scuola Grande provides a spectacular architectural setting, the rectangular hall used for the performance (34 by 13 meters) is no theater. The Venice Baroque Orchestra and its conductor, Andrea Marcon, were on a podium against the center of one long wall, facing an open space for most of the action, and with seating at both ends for no more than 180 spectators. Jorge Lavelli's staging was thus limited to organizing the confrontations of the characters, sometimes surrounded by the public, sometimes in and around the spectators for the entrances and exits - and in Handel every big aria comes with an exit.
While the movements were generally clever and dramatically apt, Lavelli's efforts to involve the orchestra or some of its members in the ''stage'' action seemed mainly contrived. Cosroe, king of Persia, is confronted with a self-created Lear-like problem: whether to pass on the power to his older son and legitimate heir, Siroe, a noble fellow, or to the younger one, Medarse, a shifty, ambitious type. Emira is a princess disguised as a man and out to get Cosroe, who killed her father, but she inconveniently loves Siroe. Laodice, the companion of the king is also taken with Siroe. After many complications, Metastasian reason triumphs, Siroe gets the throne, and forgiveness replaces revenge all around. In an essentially modern-dress production, Lauro Crisman's decor seemed minimal, but Francesco Zito's costumes played a key dramatic role. Cosroe's change of heart on the succession question is matched by a change of behavior and haberdashery, from extravagant to sober, as sanity takes over. While Siroe is in all-purpose uniform, his scheming younger brother is in a civilian getup suitable for a college pool shark, whereas Laodice seems to be a chic society hostess.
The fine and well-balanced cast was headed, in the originally castrato roles, by Valentina Kutzarova as Siroe and Roberto Balconi as a countertenor Medarse. Patrizia Ciofi was a sparkling Emira despite behind hidden in what looked like an old-time movie usher's uniform, and Jaho Ermonela was a splendidly slinky Laodice. The bass Lorenzo Regazzo was the sonorous and agile Cosroe, and Dario Giorgele as a Persian general got to wear a uniform fit for a field marshal.
The production was a joint effort by the Teatro La Fenice, which is still waiting out the slow reconstruction of its theater, destroyed by fire in 1996; Apollonesque, an American-based organization aiming to support Baroque opera production in Venice, and the committee for the celebration of the third centennial of Metastasio's birth, which actually was in 1698.
Article: "A Scenic Revival of a Rare Handel" By David Stevens