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George Frideric Handel: Serse, HWV 40
Franco Fagioli (Serse), Inga Kalna (Romilda), Delphine Galou (Amastre), Francesca Aspromonte (Atalanta), Vivica Genaux (Arsamene), Andrea Mastroni (Ariodate), Biagio Pizzuti (Elviro), Il Pomo d’Oro, Cantica Symphonia, Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor)
Recorded at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy (November 2018) – 178’
Deutsche Grammophon 483 5784 [3 CDs] (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in English and German – Libretto in Italian, English, German, and French

Handel’s 40th opera, dating from 1738, focuses on the Persian emperor, Xerxes, the despot who supposedly had the sea thrashed as punishment for a storm damaging his fleet of warships. It begins with him singing the praises of a tree (yes, a tree) in one of the stateliest arias ever composed by Handel (master of the stately) or anyone else. But then it becomes a knockabout farce as Xerxes pursues a woman in love with his brother while his fiancée disguises herself as a man as she stalks him. Complications ensue. The action moves along more quickly than in others of the opera seria type thanks to Handel composing short arias (without the da capo repeats) for the most part. There are still some of the lengthier more ruminative arias, however, giving the work a split personality.

Two recordings of Serse have been released at the same time, and both are recommendable. The DVD from Frankfurt Opera is reviewed here. Each has a cast that amply fulfills the requirements of the roles along with a conductor and orchestra that capture the Handelian style. They are remarkably similar in length; applause accounts for the extra two minutes for the DVD’s live performance.

The five central characters in the piece (two men, three women) are all sung by high voices and it can be a bit of a challenge to discern who is singing at times. (This is not such a problem with the DVD/Blu-ray.) Closely following the libretto is required. The booklet also has good articles, one (very amusing) by Donna Leon, the writer of mysteries set in Venice. (Please remember that Serse, with its flippant approach to the great and mighty and the presence of a comic underling, hearkens back to Venetian opera of the 17th century.)

As if to compensate for the lack of visuals, there is a notable degree of vocal acting on the part of the singers. Franco Fagioli begins with a truly luxuriant account of “Ombra mai fu”, but he soon turns fierce in has amorous pursuit of one Romilda (soprano Inga Kalna.) Toward the end of the work, when Xerxes becomes totally unhinged with frustration, his voice plunges into its baritone range.

Further vivid characterization comes from baritone Biagio Pizzuti as the mischievous servant Elviro; he takes on a gruff character voice at one point. Delphine Galou’s alto voice provides contrast in the role of Amastre, the cross-dressing fiancée.

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux takes on the role of Xerxes’s brother, Arsamene. He and Romilda are in love, but her calculating sister, Atalanta (sung by soprano Francesca Aspromonte), also pursues him. The energetic Maxim Emelyanychev conducts from the harpsichord, propelling the work along in a most compelling manner.

Michael Johnson




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