Handel: Serse

Our rating 
2.0 out of 5 star rating 2.0

WORKS: Serse
PERFORMER: Judith Malafronte, Jennifer Smith, Brian Asawa, Lisa Milne, Susan Bickley, Dean Ely, David Thomas; Hanover Band & Chorus/Nicholas McGegan
CATALOGUE NO: 75605 51312 2
Serse (Xerxes) fell flat with its first London audiences – receiving only five performances, and not being seen again for almost 200 years – yet, in its mix of the satirical and the sentimental, its swift pace, profusion of melodic invention and playful disregard of the conventions of 18th-century opera seria, it now has a particularly modern appeal.

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A new recording was certainly needed and Nicholas McGegan might have been the man to deliver it. Alas, his BMG debut has been sabotaged by an ill-judged production and one crucial piece of miscasting. Judith Malafronte, the Xerxes, is suitably regal and reckless, albeit occasionally taxed on high (she goes disastrously astray in her climactic call to the Furies). As Arsamene, Brian Asawa’s luscious legato is, at times, almost too suavely feminine for this lovesick youth. Lisa Milne offers some spirited, delightfully pointed singing as Atalanta, while Susan Bickley as Amastre, the King’s long-suffering cast-off, gives a masterclass in how to contain tempestuous emotions within a sumptuously noble line. The playing of the Hanover Band, too, is excellent.

The heart of the opera, though, rests with Romilda. And sadly, Jennifer Smith, as heard here, is no longer the singer to supply it. Her singing is shallow, short-breathed and often ill-tuned. Far from sounding tragic, she ends up sounding merely tired.

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The impression is not helped by the intrusive ‘stage effects’ and the heavy-handed treatment of the opera’s overtly comic scenes (one dreads David Thomas’s every entry as Elviro). If only someone had recorded ENO’s peerless 1985 production, with Ann Murray and Valerie Masterson. Faute de mieux, Handelians must make do with Jean-Claude Malgoire’s dated but at least well sung 1979 set on Sony.