‘The worst libretto Handel ever set … the construction is clumsy, the characterisation incredible,’ wrote Winton Dean, with his typical panache, in his and Merrill Knapp’s classic book on the earlier Handel operas. Never mind: if one is prepared to accept that Handel’s dramatic muse sometimes nodded, and just enjoy the music for what it is, Silla is amply worth a hearing. It had its first English revival in spring 2000, in the Handel series that Denys Darlow directs at the Royal College of Music, and the present recording is a by-product of those performances.
The opera, probably Handel’s shortest, dates from 1713 and seems, oddly, to have been written for a private performance at the main London opera house in honour of a new French Ambassador – although there is no certainty that the performance actually took place. The plot, an absurd farrago about the Roman dictator Sulla (‘Silla’ is the Italianised form), here a ruthless murderer who makes unsuccessful grabs at two of the three women in the cast (the third is his wife) and then suddenly repents, seems decidedly inappropriate for a festive occasion, or indeed any occasion at all. It’s the kind of libretto that has got baroque opera a bad name. Its sole merit – and this is quite important – is that it does allow opportunities for a considerable range of musical expression.
Curiously, however, Handel doesn’t seem to have been fully alert to those opportunities. Sulla himself, for example, gets music more amiable than so odious a character seems to deserve (including a truly lovely ‘sleep song’, with recorders), and the music for his wife Metella is often absurdly at odds with the text and her situation. But there are many attractive numbers, notably some telling music for the two pairs of lovers who find themselves threatened by Sulla’s importunities – Lepido and Flavia have two duets, the second a miniature but intensely poignant F minor Adagio, while Celia grieves the (supposed) death of her Claudio in a heartfelt G minor sarabande.
The mainly youthful cast here – these performances traditionally give opportunities to promising young singers – are very successful and I am sure we will hear a lot more of some of them. Rachel Nicholls sings Metella’s music in a pleasant, natural and very even voice, strong and resolute in the big aria that ends Act 2. As Celia, Elizabeth Cragg shows a lighter voice with a hint of an attractively grainy quality; Natasha Marsh’s full and rounded voice rings out to excellent effect in Flavia’s arias.
Except for the brief appearance of ‘Il Dio’, an odd kind of god who encourages Sulla’s ferocity in his dream vision (ably taken by Christopher Dixon), there are no true male voices. Lepido is sung by Joanne Lunn in a fresh, bright voice, accurate and rhythmic; Claudio is taken by Simon Brown, a capable and fluent countertenor with a strong and clear top register and much subtlety in handling details of stress and timing. He has a fine aria with trumpet to end Act 1. Sulla himself is sung by a Handelian of considerable and obvious experience – a fine model for the young members of the cast: James Bowman shows his knowledge of how to shape and colour Handel’s lines and (as in the fiery Act 2 aria) to sing forcefully and still musically. The voice rings well even if the lower register now has a little less character.
All the singers add a little, generally discreet ornamentation in the da capo sections. Denys Darlow, as always, conducts in a direct and unaffected fashion, showing consideration for the singers and understanding of Handel, with a good range of tempos and with spruce, lively rhythms. Handelians will not want to miss this chance of hearing a rare work admirably performed.'