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Georg Friedrich HÄNDEL (c.1685--1759)
Xerxes HWV 40 1737/38 [2:51:53]
Julie Kaufmann - Atalanta (soprano); Yvonne Kenny - Romilda (soprano); Ann Murray - Serse (soprano); Christopher Robson – Arsamene (counter-enor); Patricia Bardon - Amastre (mezzo); Jan Zinkler - Elviro (baritone); Umberto Chiummo - Ariodate (bass)
Bavarian State Opera Chorus
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra/Ivor Bolton
rec. live, 1997, Munich Nationaltheater, Germany. DDD
FARAO CLASSICS B108010 [3 CDs: 69:00 + 63:30 + 40:23]
Experience Classicsonline

The aria Ombra mai fu at the start of Act I of Handel's opera seria Serse (Xerxes) is likely to be its best-known asset. Serse was written in 1733-38, at the end of Handel's career as an opera composer: he concentrated on oratorio after 1741. It is a great achievement. Not least because it uses the music, and the marriage of words and music, to evoke in the audience pathos, sympathy, delight, and as much tempered ridicule as tempered tenderness.
Serse is an opera of circumstance - of feigned, genuine, misplaced, misguided and even mistaken (Serse's for a tree) love, of revenge and obsession. The pace that conductor Ivor Bolton follows (this is the Mackerras/Davies version) is a brisk one. It's one that allows us little time for indulgence, yet manages to bring out a full range of responses. It also throws the greatest attention onto the parts of the work that matter most – the key arias, the more elegant melodies and the character- and plot-defining moments.
This is also a live recording; it was made in 1997 at the Munich Nationaltheater. Although there is plenty of stage atmosphere, it’s far from intrusive; applause follows not all of the numbers and tends to add to the experience.
There is, of course, much fine music in Serse and this recording has much to recommend it for immediacy, vibrancy, and a great grasp of the work's structure. Sequence and contrast are important: it’s in the juxtaposition of numbers, monologues and groupings that the ironies emerge of someone so besotted that his lack of judgement becomes positively dangerous. These are often subtle juxtapositions for subtlety is called for - not burlesque - when foibles such as fickleness are concerned. And a dignified, not a mocking, revelation of Serse’s deviancy makes a clearer impression on listeners in harmony with the idiom Handel surely intended than overdoing it. Such fine-tuning is exemplified in the delightfully understated duetto for Serse and Amastre, Gran pena è gelosia [CD2 tr.32].
These subtleties are compellingly conveyed by a top notch cast. Yet, although the standards of playing and singing are high, there is the inherent worry that Baroque singing styles have not been followed: vibrato is widely used, and what for many will be an over-emphasis on dramatic impact at the expense of purity threatens to push its way to the fore when we're used to something gentler. Notes are leaned into. Listen to the almost wobbling higher reaches of Ann Murray’s (Serse) Se bramate d’amore [CD2 tr.13]… quite out of place. Similarly Christopher Robson almost strains with Quella che tutto fè [CD2 tr.19]. More uncertainty can be heard at the very end of Sì, la voglio [CD2 tr.25]: his delivery is so mannered as to draw attention not to what he sings but to how he is singing it.
Nevertheless, this is a stylish performance, which the recording reflects. It’s clear from the photographs in the set’s booklet that there were some striking and larger-than-life performances… the costumes, make-up and poses struck. All the singers are absorbed in their roles; it is a pleasure to follow as the involved - yet not improbable - plot unfolds. Handel’s success was to paint such depth into a relatively familiar set of circumstances as those treated in Serse. And then manage to give the characters interest enough for us to care for them despite the somewhat stock roles they play. The experienced and accomplished singers on this recording really take us with them dramatically. They do so as much through a sense of style and careful projection of the basic conflicts in the life of Serse himself (and those whom he affects as he manages his troubles) as from pure technique.
The recording is open and clear; and the acoustic a good one. The booklet which the independent FARAO has provided is useful with an informative introductory essay and libretto in Italian, German and English.
This is a communicative and sensitive account of Handel’s last drama per musica. It has much to recommend it – if faithfulness to Baroque singing conventions is less important than conviction.
There is a total of five other complete recordings of the opera in the catalogue at present and the Bravissimo Opera Library devoted to Mirella Freni contains a Serse. The first choice would probably be McGegan on Conifer (51312, also live takes from the Göttingen Festival) for clarity, beauty and the most appropriate response to Handel’s intentions. But for sheer joie de vivre you may want to investigate this release; nothing new, startling or musically stunning. But every word is clear, every emotion communicated. It’s tempting to think Handel that would have approved.
Mark Sealey


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