Handel: Serse

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Virgin Veritas
WORKS: Serse
PERFORMER: Anne Sofie von Otter, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Sandrine Piau, Lawrence Zazzo, Silvia Tro Santafé, Giovanni Furlanetto, Antonio Abete; Les Arts Florissants/William Christie
CATALOGUE NO: 545 7112
Serse (Xerxes) was a resounding flop in Handel’s lifetime. History, though, has had its revenge; and the very qualities that fazed opera-goers in 1738 – the lightly ironic, occasionally farcical, tone, the fluid structure (many short ariosos, relatively few full-dress da capo arias) – have made Serse one of Handel’s most attractive operas for stage-directors and audiences alike.This new recording, taken from performances at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, gets off to a good start. There’s a delightfully springy overture, typical of Christie’s elegant, zestful direction, followed by a rapt account of ‘Ombra mai fu’ (immortalised as ‘Handel’s Largo’) from Anne Sofie von Otter. When Xerxes is later thwarted in love, von Otter gives a show-stopping performance of the aria di furore ‘Se bramate’, whose faintly over-the-top coloratura underlines that the dangerously wilful autocrat is also a figure of fun. Sandrine Piau’s Atalanta – sweet-toned, coquettish, but tender, too, in her enchanting Act II minuet song – is another memorable performance. As the suffering Arsamene, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo is touching, if sometimes over-languid; and Antonio Abete, with his unscripted falsetto effects, duly milks the audience as the comic servant Elviro. Contralto Silvia Tro Santafé makes the wronged Amastre into a frenzied virago: certainly a performance to make you listen, though her relentlessly steely chest tones suggest early vocal burnout. More seriously, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz is too often gusty and out-of-tune as the heroine Romilda. On the rival Conifer performance under Nicholas McGegan, Jennifer Smith is far preferable; and Susan Bickley captures Amastre’s pathos as well as her indignation. Forced to choose, though, I would plump, just, for the new set, for the extra character of Christie’s conducting, but above all for von Otter, far more charismatic than the decent but sometimes strained, edgy Judith Malafronte for McGegan. Richard Wigmore