George Frideric Handel: Serse, HWV 40
Gaëlle Arquez (Xerxes), Elizabeth Sutphen (Romilda), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Amastre), Louise Alder (Atalanta), Lawrence Zazzo (Arsamene), Brandon Cedel (Ariodate), Thomas Faulkner (Elviro), Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble, Constantinos Carydis (conductor), Tilmann Kohler (director), Karoly Risz (set designer), Susanne Uhl (costume designer), Joachim Klein (lighting designer), Tiziano Mancini (video director)
Live performance filmed at the Frankfurt Opera (January 2017) – 180’
C Major Entertainment 747908 (or Blu-ray 748004) – (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English, German and French – Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Korean and Japanese
Jane Glover, in her book Handel in London, recounts that Serse (or Xerxes on the cover of this release) was premiered in 1738 toward what turned out to be near the end of Handel’s opera output when the London audience was showing diminished interest in works in a foreign language, and just prior to his “reinvention” as an oratorio specialist with the masterwork Saul. While many of his other operas were great successes, with revivals over several seasons, Serse had just five performances and was not seen again until 1924, in Germany.
One wonders whether the work’s failure was due to the audience confronted by a work that is at cross-purposes with itself. It is largely in the established opera seria form, and begins with the solemn, processional “Ombra mai fù”, a tune that went on to become one of the most recognized from its era. But what ensues is not a dignified tale about historical or mythic characters embroiled in romantic entanglements, but a madcap comedy about one historical character, the Persian emperor, Xerxes, and the romantic imbroglio that results when he decides to pursue one Romilda who is in love with Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who is also pursued by Romilda’s sister, Atalanta. Complicating matters is the presence of Xerxe’s fiancée, Amastre, who lurks about disguised as a man. There is also Ariodate, father of the two sisters, and Arsamene’s cheeky servant, Elviro.
The work has 31 arias which would mean, if all were of da capo form, a very lengthy work. Most of the arias are short, however, much like a standalone opening section of a da capo aria. This speeds up the action and is in keeping with the shenanigans. When a character does have a da capo aria (and they can be as heartfelt as those in any Handel work), one almost expects him or her to conclude with “Just kidding!”
This is one of two recordings of Serse that have been released at the same time, the other being a studio recording with Il Pomo d’Oro under Maxim Emelyanychev. Both are recommendable. 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 big advantage of the C Major release is that it is a stage performance that reflects the craziness of the plot. The characters wear modern dress and the shallow stage is occupied (for the first two of the three acts) by a lavishly-set dining table. A lot of food gets damaged and hurled about, and at one point the beleaguered Arsamene hides underneath. Frankfurt’s opera company has been receiving a lot of positive press lately, and the terrific cast gives evidence as to why this is. The title role is performed by mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez who manages to inject a mischievous element in the famous entry aria as she wraps foliage around herself, thus sensuously enjoying the beloved tree. Such a start leads almost logically toward Xerxes’ willful romantic pursuit and its resulting complications.
All five central roles are sung by high voices and a big advantage of the visual drama, as opposed to a sound recording, is that one can readily sort out the players. The two sisters both in love with Arsamene are sopranos: Romilda (Elizabeth Sutphen), whom he loves in return, and Atalanta (Louise Alder), whose love is not reciprocated, and who resorts to desperate subterfuge. The two mezzos are easy to sort out: one is Xerxes and the other is his spurned fiancée, Amastre. Her role seems to be a trouser role but one must remember that she is a woman disguised as a man so she can stalk the emperor (successfully as it turns out.) The other mezzo-like voice is that of counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo as Arsamene. Frankfurt Opera’s orchestra performs a wide range of music, and the forces used here show a convincing way with Handel under Constatinos Carydis.