Walking towards the Romanian Athenaeum for an opera performance supposed to start midweek at 22:30, I was wandering what made Fabio Biondi select this specific Handelian opus and not a better known one. After all, the Enescu Festival’s public – that Biondi knows well after his many visits here – doesn’t necessarily need to discover hidden Baroque gems but should be exposed to more 18th-century operatic masterpieces. I found my answer in an interview that Biondi gave to the local press where he claimed to have selected Silla not only for the beautiful music but also for its brevity. Even so, quite a number of seats were vacant in this beautiful, fresco-decorated auditorium, holding 600-700. Even more were empty a couple of hours later.

Silla was composed in 1713 and was probably performed only once during Handel’s lifetime. The opera’s story is based on the life of the Roman consul and general Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix as described in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Placed in Handel’s operatic canon between Teseo and Amadigi di Gaula (the latter opus reusing most of the music from Silla), it is not considered one of Handel’s major works. If the orchestral music often bears the imprint of Handel’s brilliant style, the arias have nothing special, being mostly unable to capture the characters’ inner conflicts and giving the impression of incomplete development. The librettist, Giacomo Rossi, created a plot whose parts don’t gel well together and include more inconsistencies than similar Baroque scenarios. Not only does the libretto take significant liberties with historically accepted facts (as did Mozart’s later opera on the same subject), but the actions taken by various dramatis personae – especially Silla – seem difficult to justify. During almost the entire narrative, the main character is portrayed as a ruthless dictator and a compulsive seducer, chasing simultaneously two women: Flavia, the wife of the tribune Lepido, and Celia, in love with Claudio, a Silla antagonist. The dictator seems ready to kill friend or foe in order to satisfy his whims. His abrupt repentance is totally unexplained, even if it follows a brush with death. As implausible is the behaviour of his wife, Metella, both unbelievably supportive while witnessing Silla’s infidelities, and ready to lie in order to protect his perceived enemies. Overall, it’s a convoluted story, and the public’s interest in it was definitely not helped by the decision to provide neither a simultaneous translation nor leaflets with the text.

Despite any qualms one might have about the work, Thursday night’s rendition was outstanding. Violinist Fabio Biondi has been leading Europa Galante for almost two decades and the cohesiveness he brought to the ensemble is easily recognisable. The musicians’ collective expertise in playing music of the 17th and 18th centuries is indisputable and was in full display once again. In the orchestral interludes, the balance between winds and strings was well adjusted and the support that the ensemble offered to the singers was carefully individualised.

Biondi was able to reunite in Bucharest most of the vocal forces that recorded Silla several years ago. There were no countertenors involved so, except for Nicolò Donini’s deus ex machina apparition as Mars, female voices were cast in all the other parts. Contralto Sonia Prina took the title role. Her first aria, “Alza il volo la mia fama” was rather soft for introducing such a brutal character but there were soon other chances (“La vendetta è un cibo al cor”) to display Silla’s mercilessness. With a powerful instrument, occasionally pushed too hard, Prina had a great stage presence, portraying well Silla’s pomposity. As Metella, soprano Sunhae Im was all suaveness. In the role of Lepido, Vivica Genaux captured the audience with the vocal pyrotechnics that she is famous for (“Se ben tuona il ciel irato”). Flavia was interpreted by Roberta Invernizzi, displaying a sensitive and even soprano voice throughout the performance, from revealing a bad dream in the third scene to the final act’s “Stelle rubella”. Surprisingly, Claudio gets more arias than any other character in Silla and the role’s interpreter, mezzo Silvia Beltrami, offered an all-around marvelous performance. Her “Con tromba guerriera” with trumpet obbligato was one of the evening’s high points. On the contrary, Claudio’s love interest, Celia, gets only two arias. One of them is a sarabande, “Sei già morto”, intoned with great purity by soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli. Overall, this was an extraordinary lesson in the variety of timbre, range, and subtlety that singers can produce.