Handel: Serse, HWV 40
On 15 April 1738 Louis François Roubiliac’s statue of George Frederick Handel (which may be found today in Westminster Abbey) was unveiled in London’s Spring Gardens, a place devoted to pleasures culinary, musical, arboreal and erotic. Relieved of his wig, the marble composer strikes a casual pose, lyre in hand, flute and viol at his slippered feet, while a plump putto acts as his amanuensis. Thus raised on a pedestal, the German composer of Italian opera had finally arrived in England. Or had he? Premiered the same day, Serse was among the last of Handel’s operas to enjoy even brief success in London. The printed libretto did it no favours, drawing attention to its ‘imbicillities’ and failing to trumpet the wit and versatility with which Handel traced the erratic passions of the plant-loving Persian despot.
Conductor Christian Curnyn’s spry, supple reading effortlessly shadows the mood-swings of mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany’s Serse from the balmy ‘Ombra mai fù’ to the stinging fioritura of ‘Crude furie’. It’s a stunning central performance, comfortably matched by incisive playing from the Early Opera Company orchestra.
Sopranos Rosemary Joshua (as Romilda) and Joélle Harvey (Atalanta) melt and sparkle to order, accompanied by fluttering recorders. As Amastre, the king’s rejected fiancée, contralto Hilary Summers wilts elegantly, while Brindley Sherratt is a forthright Ariodate. Andreas Wolf is Elviro, who for a good part of Act II appears as a foghorn in disguise as a flower seller, but proves rather more suave and handsome when singing in his own natural voice. Only David Daniels’s Arsamene disappoints, his artistry still evident in ‘Amor, tiranno Amor’ but the voice now somewhat matronly for a juvenile romantic lead.