Handel
Serse – Opera in three acts to an anonymous libretto revised from Il Xerse by Silvio Stampaglia, after Il Xerse by Count Nicolò Minato [Performing edition prepared by Peter Jones; sung in Italian]
Serse – Anna Stéphany
Arsamene – David Daniels
Amastre – Hilary Summers
Ariodate – Brindley Sherratt
Romilda – Rosemary Joshua
Atalanta – Joélle Harvey
Elviro – Andreas Wolf

Early Opera Company
Christian Curnyn

Recorded 13-17 August 2012 in the Church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 0797 (3 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 46 minutes
Reviewed: September 2013
Although to all outward appearances, Serse shares with many other instances of opera seria the usual convoluted plot of tangled love interests, it is rare among Handel’s operas in being essentially light-hearted, even comic. That is despite the ample scope for jealousy, deception, recriminations, suicidal despair and revenge contemplated by the various characters as Serse seeks to seduce Romilda, who is already in love with his brother Arsamene, which incites the anger of Amastre, Serse’s betrothed. Meanwhile, Romilda’s sister Atalanta is also in love with Arsamene. Amidst all this is the humorous figure of Elviro, a buffoon of a servant who largely derives from the commedia dell’arte tradition (the origins of the libretto lay in a Venetian source).
Coming as the last but two of Handel’s long sequence of Italian operas, it also seems to break new ground in its musical structure with a much more fluid succession of arias (comparatively few of which are da capo), arioso, choruses and recitatives, making for a more dramatically nimble work, though requiring no less vocal virtuosity. The hurdles which an ensemble must overcome therefore are perhaps greater than in most other of Handel’s stage-works.
The cast of singers on this recording includes some notable Handelians, and there are no weak links. Anna Stéphany as Serse is authoritative, generally focusing on the character’s more serious and public side rather than evoking too much of his impulsive, erratic behaviour, though some of the latter comes through in the denouement of the final recitative. A good example of Stéphany’s control is shown in ‘Se bramate d’amar’, while the famous ‘Ombra mai fu’ also studiously avoids anything overwrought or sentimental.
Rosemary Joshua’s account of Romilda is noble and steadfast, retaining the character’s dignity even as she undergoes the torment of Serse’s unwelcome advances and Arsamene’s condemnation as he misunderstands Romilda’s intentions. Joshua avoids anything skittish, and movingly brings out the poignancy of her character’s situation in ‘Se l’idol mio’. David Daniels as Arsamene matches Joshua for steadiness of purpose and the sincerity of his musical realisation of Arsamene’s emotional turmoil, notably so in ‘Non so se sia la speme’ and ‘Quella che tutta fé’. Hilary Summers’s contralto sounds rather masculine in the part of Amastre. Admittedly the character is disguised as a man for much of the time, but it will not be to everyone’s taste, and Summers does step out of the disguise, musically, to sound all the rage of a wronged woman in ‘Anima infida’. Generally she shows all the power and determination necessary to confront Serse’s wiliness.
Joélle Harvey’s Atalanta emerges as the most multi-faceted role, as she brings out all the attitude of a minx in a number such as ‘Un cenno leggiadretto’, where she resolves to win Arsamene for herself – but she also shows the sincere depth of emotion which the character is capable of feeling (thereby winning our sympathy, if not Arsamene’s) in ‘Voi mi dite’. As Elviro, Andreas Wolf has a distinct vocal persona, generally capturing the character’s bluff temperament and he imitates amusingly the coarse street cry of a flower seller in Act Two, said to have been taken by Handel from one he heard in London. Wolf could sometimes though have had even more fun with the part. Brindley Sherratt’s Ariodate is dependable and firm.
It is a pity though that all these elements do not come together to constitute an urgent, dramatic realisation of the score, despite numbers being generally well executed individually. As a less serious opera, a more relaxed reading could be considered more suitable, but really there should be more fire and crackle for the comic pacing to take effect, not to mention a more audibly arch tone in the recitatives in particular to capture the work’s wit and irony. For example Serse’s ‘Più che penso’ sounds strangely subdued given the flames of love in his heart; the recitative in which Elviro describes the impending storm that will wreck Serse’s bridge across the sea linking Asia and Europe is insufficiently striking; and the Sinfonia which opens Act Three is stately and serene, like a Concerto grosso divertissement during the interval, rather than helping to drive the narrative on at this critical juncture.
Some may well appreciate this recording for the humanity which the rendition undoubtedly elicits from the score. However, Nicholas McGegan’s recording with the Hanover Band remains the preferred option for those seeking a more vital and dramatically compelling reading, although William Christie’s version was recorded from live performances, with the mixed results which that entails. Even so there is still much to enjoy in this Chandos release, which includes the Italian libretto and an English translation.

 

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