Serse – Opera in three Acts to an anonymous libretto revised from Il Xerse by Silvio Stampaglia, after Il Xerse by Count Nicolò Minato [sung in Italian, with English surtitles]
Romilda – Lucy Crowe
Atlanta – Mary Bevan
Amastre – Daniela Mack
Arsamene – Paula Murrihy
Elviro – William Dazely
The English Concert
Harry Bicket (harpsichord)
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 8 May, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
This concert performance of Serse was the latest in the English Concert’s annual Handel series at Carnegie Hall. Directed by Harry Bicket with splendid style and subtlety, and intense vigor when needed, the players were in splendid form, responding in kind and exhibiting extraordinary sensitivity to the story, a genre-/gender-bending tale which blends comedy and serious drama to recreate a semi-historical incident about love and power in ancient Persia. Notable instrumental moments were provided by the enchanting winds and strings in Act One’s introduction to the heroine; Joseph Crouch’s elegantly expressive cello obbligatos in the more reflective scenes; and Sergio Bucheli’s acutely responsive theorbo throughout.
The singing was a highly spirited affair, with the female-dominated cast uniformly magnificent in the vividness of their portrayals. In the flamboyant title role of the lovestruck “King of Kings” (more familiar to most of us as Xerxes), Emily D’Angelo was absolutely dazzling. Hers was a totally authoritative account of the part. She opened the opera with an exquisite rendition of ‘Ombra mai fù’, Serse’s love-song to a plane tree, well-known in instrumental arrangements as ‘Handel’s Largo’. Her powerful mezzo continued to blossom through the first two Acts, until finally exploding in the extravagant ‘Crude Furie degl’ orridi abissi’, which she unleashed with brilliantly focused cathartic fury, reaching from the bottom to the top of her enormous vocal range.
As Arsamene, Xerxes’s gentle brother and romantic rival for the love of Romilda, Paula Murrihy delivered an equally poised portrayal. Her warm and winsome mezzo sounded glorious in the extended Act Two lament, ‘Quell che tutta fe’, in which she voices her character’s feelings about what he believes to be his fiancée’s betrayal of their love. She was exceptionally well-paired with the astounding Lucy Crowe who, as Romilda, displayed a gloriously bright tone in their lover’s-spat duet, ‘Troppo oltraggi la mia fede’, as well as in ‘Caro voi’, the exquisite aria which ends the opera.
Mary Bevan, as Romilda’s skittish, love-stung sister Atalanta, was a brazen scene-stealer, except when William Dazely was present for his delightfully mischievous depiction of the servant Elvira. Daniela Mack offered a bravura characterization of Amastre, Serse’s betrothed (temporarily jilted and disguised as a man), using her flexible mezzo to dispatch her arias with surprisingly high-powered ornamentation. Neal Davies in the small role of Ariodate, father of Romilda and Atalanta, provided a note of gravitas.
Although the performance was not staged, and scores were sometimes poised on music stands, this did not limit the movement of the singers, all of whom seemed at their most expressive in this fast-paced, totally satisfying presentation of one of Handel’s most popular and free-flowing operas.