The plot of Serse concerns the eponymous Persian monarch, a man of such whimsy in love that he is first heard singing a veritable love song to a plane tree and the shade it offers--the very famous "Ombra mai fu", sometimes known as Handel's Largo. Moments later, Serse falls instantly in love with Romilda, who happens to be his brother Arsamene's beloved. Romilda has a sister, Atalanta, who, upon realizing that her sisterRead more loves Arsamene, decides that she will too--she's a witty troublemaker. (Both girls are daughters of Serse's general, Ariodate.) Suddenly, into the mix comes Amastre, who has been jilted by Serse; disguised as a man, she has come to either win him back or wreak havoc. A comic character, Elviro, is Arsamene's servant.
The opera is both funny and serious: In addition to the tangled loves noted above (which cause as much grief as joy), it focuses on Serse's use and abuse of power, how he treats others, and how seriously he takes himself. In this production from Dresden's Semperoper, recorded in 2000, director Michael Hampe underscores Serse's harmful frivolity by having him set fire to, and destroy, his beloved plane tree in a fit of pique in the last act. A Bonsai version of the tree is presented to him in the opera's last moments and he is therefore given another chance at love.
The sets and costumes by Carlo Tommasi place the action somewhere exotic around the start of the 20th century, with occasionally more modern touches. Not only is this elegant, it suggests the Ottoman Empire and all of its confusions. They're mostly in blacks, whites, and grays, and the fabulous plane tree, stage center, is encased in steel and glass, recalling I.M. Pei's pyramid.
The performances are superb. Christophe Rousset's affinity for Baroque opera is well-known; he treats it as living drama, with recitatives delivered in real time, pauses where they should be, and plenty of room for the singers. Da capo arias are embellished entertainingly and unjarringly, and I doubt many listeners will miss the few cuts he makes in the score. His cast is ideal. The roles of Serse and his brother Arsamene are sung by women (the former was written for castrato), and both Paula Rasmussen and Ann Hallenberg convince as men after the initial few moments. Rasmussen's voice has the power needed for Serse's rants as well as the lyricism for "Ombra mai fu"; the voice's color is a fine amber. Hallenberg's somewhat darker tone serves well.
The two sisters are Isabel Bayrakdarian as Romilda, whose peppery soprano is distinctive and expressive, and Sandrine Piau as Atalanta, breathtaking throughout with her rapid-fire coloratura and right-on stratospheric additions to the score. Patricia Bardon sings Amastre, and while the role is somewhat underdefined, she makes an impression. Marcello Lippi as Ariodate handles his coloratura well, and Matteo Peirone is a fine Elviro--a role that clearly was meant as a diversion. The only competing version of this opera is from the ENO in an English translation, with Ann Murray in the title role and Charles Mackerras at the helm. This new version is preferred, for performance accuracy and a somewhat less precious attitude. Picture and sound are excellent; subtitles are provided in major European languages. A real joy!
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Neither my colleague Bernard Jacobson nor I was particularly impressed with William Christie’s recent audio recording of Serse (Fanfare 28:4), variously finding his direction “monotonous” (B. J.) or “sententious” (B. R.). Given my high regard for Christophe Rousset’s Handel opera recordings and the great insight of producer Michael Hampe, whose delightful Cimarosa Il matrimonio segreto is also reviewed [perhaps] in this issue, I had high hopes for this Serse. That they are not totally fulfilled on either the musical or production side does not detract from the fact that this is a considerably more successful performance than that of Christie.
For a detailed introduction to the opera, readers are referred to my review in 28:4. Here, I will simply remind you that Serse (1738) returns to the tragicomic type of opera Handel had essayed so successfully in the Venetian Agrippina of 1709 (a DVD recording of which, in a splendid Hampe production, was reviewed in 29:4). While the plot touches on some of the exploits of the legendary Persian king Xerxes (Serse), the dynamic of the opera is provided by the love of Romilda and Atalanta, the two daughter’s of the king’s army commander Ariodante, for Xerxes’s brother, Arsamene. He in turn loves Romilda, a situation complicated by the fact that Xerxes has himself also taken a fancy to her, in the process conveniently forgetting he is already betrothed to the princess Amastre, who inconveniently arrives on the scene to cause further emotional confusion.
The present performance, given in the Semperoper, Dresden, stems from the 2000 Dresden Music Festival. The settings and costumes are dominated by muted colors—grays, silvers, dull golds, and whites—that, while handsome, give little impression of Oriental brightness or sunlight. The famous plane tree to which Xerxes sings his even more famous aria, “Ombra mai fu,” at the start of the opera is housed in a large conservatory rather than a garden, the tree being a stylized affair (a bit like a giant bonsai, if you’ll forgive the oxymoron) that, in an impressive coup de theatre,returns to be spectacularly destroyed by Xerxes in his jealous rage at losing Romilda. The 19th-century costumes pay some homage to Eastern dress so far as the girls and the king’s retainers and soldiers are concerned, but Xerxes and Ariodante wear colonial-style military uniforms. Hampe’s direction is in general surefooted, although there are times when he is inclined to resort to burlesque, seemingly forgetting that Serse, for all its moments of comedy, is a dramma per musica, not an opera buffa. In contradiction of earlier 18th-century convention, he is also inclined to allow his supernumeraries on stage too frequently, which is distracting in scenes between the principals that are obviously intended to be private.
However, Hampe’s direction of the singers is as usual perceptive, clearly recognizing that far from the mythical hero, Xerxes is very much the antihero, a vain, petty, and spiteful tyrant. These unattractive qualities are well conveyed by Paula Rasmussen, who struts, pouts, and flies into rages convincingly as the king’s plans gradually unravel in favor of his brother. Her singing is good, too, marred only by excessive vibrato, and odd moments of pitch insecurity not helped by very slow tempos for both “Ombra mai fu,” and “Più che penso.” But Rasmussen rises splendidly to the occasion in “Crude furie,” the splendid aria di furie in the final act, delivering a strongly projected performance bristling with venomous rage. The two sisters are well differentiated, Isabel Bayrakdarian’s Romilda all smoldering Eastern passion, while Sandrine Piau repeats the delightfully coquettish Atalanta she sang for Christie. Her “Un cenno leggiadretto,” the finale of act 1, titillates winningly, though Piau’s cavorting in her underwear goes some way beyond the Handelian stage. Bayrakdarian provides the strongest characterization of all the cast, her unwavering love for Arsamene at its most touching in act II when she believes him to love not her, but her sister. She is, indeed, the major reason for preferring the current performance to that of Christie, whose Romilda is hopelessly inadequate. Ann Hallenberg is a thoroughly decent, if not especially memorable, Arsamene, who does not equal Lawrence Zazzo’s sensitive performance for Christie; but Patricia Bardon’s Amastre is a considerable improvement on her rival in that set. Marcello Lippi’s sycophantic Ariodante is a dull dog, and while Matteo Pierone’s Elviro has fun in his disguise as a flower seller (one of several surviving scenes from the original Venetian 17th-century libretto), I can imagine this comic role being more sharply drawn.
One of Rousset’s great strengths as a Handel conductor is his ability to draw and sustain the composer’s melodic lines, which he clearly loves. At times, that love here leads him preciously close to self indulgence in some of the slower arias, a number of which, in addition to those already mentioned, could with benefit have moved forward with a greater sense of purpose. But if this is not Rousset’s finest Handelian hour, his direction is in general satisfyingly stylish, and he draws some polished playing, sensitive and spirited by turn, from Les Talens Lyriques. There are a number of cuts involving both recitative and arias, the most damaging being the whole of scene 10, act II, which robs us of Atalanta’s enchanting “Voi mi dite,” and Xerxes’s response, “Il core spera.” For some reason, the splendid duet for Romilda and Arsamene (splendidly done by Bayrakdarian and Hallenberg) is moved from scene 9 of the third act to scene 4 to replace Arsamene’s “Amor, tiranno Amor.”
I have no complaints about the visual production, and the sound is excellent, more spacious than is usual with early opera recordings. While this DVD is unlikely to be included among my desert island choices of filmed operas, there is much here to enjoy and commend. The recording can certainly be recommended to any Handelian looking to expand a DVD collection of the operas.
Serse, HWV 40by George Frideric Handel Performer:
Sandrine Piau (Soprano),
Marcello Lippi (Bass),
Paula Rasmussen (Mezzo Soprano),
Patricia Bardon (Mezzo Soprano),
Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano),
Matteo Peirone (Bass),
Isabel Bayrakdarian (Soprano)
Les Talens Lyriques,
Ludwigshafen Theatre Chorus
Period: Baroque Written: 1738; London, England
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Rasmussen dazzlingAugust 14, 2012By S. Salter (Boston, MA)See All My Reviews"I ordered the Rousset-Rasmussen Handel Serse after seeing a comment on Youtube that praised the Rasmussen performance - and WOW, it was spot on. She is wonderful - from the first scene "ombra" thruout. The production is also clever and polished - and the elephants were especially inventive. But the music is the thing, and this version really delivers. I had seen Boston Baroque's production of Serse live, which was excellent; this DVD creates a very different but equally satisfying musical experience."Report Abuse
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