Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759)
Bejun Mehta (countertenor) Silla
Valer Sabadus (countertenor) Metello
Hagen Matzeit (countertenor) Lentulo
Samuel Mariño (male soprano) Postumio
Eleanora Bellocci (soprano) Ottavia
Roberta Invernizzi (soprano) Fulvia
Mert Süngü (tenor) Crosogno
Innsbruck Festival Orchestra/Alessandro De Marchi
rec. 2022, Tiroler Landestheater, Innsbruck, Austria
cpo 555 586-2 
Carl Heinrich Graun spent much of his career composing opera seria and other works within Germany. His 1755 opera Montezuma was composed to a libretto that was partly written by Frederick the Great. That is also the case for Silla which had its premiere in Berlin in 1753. Silla is based upon Plutarch, and others accounts of the life of the dictator Lucius Sulla, who lived in the first century BC. Much of Sulla’s story involves his ongoing campaigns against Mithridates of Pontus; another ancient name who crops up in Opera Seria on a semi-regular basis. Silla contains the usual series of love triangles common to opera seria. Graun’s score is an example of well-crafted baroque display arias and recitatives that veer between beauty and pyrotechnics but rarely, if ever, does it get into penetrating the psychology of the characters.
This premiere recording is based on a production of the opera that was staged at last summer’s Early Music Festival at Innsbruck. The photographs included in the booklet show what appears to be a very good-looking production. The recording is not listed as a live recording, but if it is, the audience was exceptionally quiet during the performances. The sound is top-notch as far as the orchestra and chorus goes. The festival has an excellent house orchestra playing under the vigorous leadership of Alessandro De Marchi. Their partnership is one of the main features of this set.
This opera features roles for no less than four major castrati. According to the informative booklet note, Frederick the Great was especially fond of the sound of the castrati, and took great interest in having them included in his entertainments. In the present cast, the star of the attraction is counter-tenor Bejun Mehta as Silla. He certainly emerges as the soloist who comes off as the best sounding interpreter among this cast. This is hardly surprising considering the wealth of stage experience this singer has behind him. In his arias he displays pithy-sounding, forwardly placed, and his agility remains impressive. It is a pity that none of the other gentlemen quite come up to the standard that he sets. Hagen Matzeit as Silla’s friend Lentullo sounds most comfortable when he remains in his fairly warm, expansive middle register. When he reaches down to his lower range, the register change is a rather bumpy experience. Similarly, Valer Sabadus’ Metello is harsh and edgy-sounding when he moves outside his middle register.
Samuel Mariño is listed on his website as a male soprano. Certainly, many of the castrati could sing in a very high register. Several roles in Baroque opera are actually beyond the limits of most counter-tenors and can only be successfully sung by a soprano, or a mezzo with a very good upper register; the role of Sifare in Mozart’s Mitridate Re di Ponto springs to mind. There is no doubt that Mr Mariño’s voice is unusually highly placed for a falsetto singer; however, on the evidence that is heard here, he is loud and harsh-toned too often to provide any real listening pleasure. In the soprano role of Ottavia, Eleanora Bellocci is a most confident singer with a bright, compact tone and decent technique. Her singing impressed me very much in the recent CPO release of Paër’s Leonore (review), her voice seems to be much the same as it was in that recording made three years ago. As Fulvia, Ottavia’s mother, Roberta Invernizzi presents a vivid dramatic picture that leaps out of one’s speakers, but she is sabotaged by a rather piercing tone, allied with coarse delivery including a tendency to lunge about wildly for effect. The last main role is for a tenor, sung here by Mert Süngü. He has a reasonably clear sound but is often too loud and he lacks grace in the coloratura passages. Many of my above comments may be mitigated because of unfortunate choices of microphone placement. Here everything seems to be inordinately close to the singers mouths, as if they have been given headset microphones which can utterly destroy vocal classical music. This can have the unpleasant effect of having the singers yelling into one’s ear and not letting their voices filter properly with the acoustic space around them. If microphone placement is the problem here, then the engineers and the Festival may need to look at some other alternatives if they want to make the best possible case for their efforts.
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