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George Frideric HANDEL (1685–1759)
Serse (excerpts) (1738) [57.29]
Serse – Piotr Kusiewcz (tenor)
Amastre - Jadwiga Rappé (contralto)
Warsaw Soloists Concerto Avenna/Andrzej Mysinski
rec. 23–26 November 1988, Polish Radio, Warsaw.
DUX DUX0377 [57.29]


Handel's Serse is based on a libretto which was set by Cavalli. The original libretto was typical of Venetian opera of the period, with a large cast of characters mixing serious aristocrats with comic servants very much in the manner of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Handel seems to have been quite fond of Venetian libretti and a number of his operas have their origins in such texts, though with the comic business usually cut out. But Handel's Serse is unusual in that its libretto preserves one of the comic servants and its tone is unusually sardonic, undercutting the mock heroics of the notional hero, Serse. Also the heroine's sister, Atalanta, is a remarkably skittish almost comic role.

But we must beware of calling the opera a comic one. Compared to the operas of composers like Pergolesi and Galuppi, Handel's Serse is not strictly comic. But it is not strictly serious either and part of the glorious effect is gained by the way Handel and his librettist make Serse react in overblown opera seria manner to rather trivial situations.

This disc, from Poland, contains excerpts from the opera. These are not selections from a complete recording, but simply a project to record all of Serse and Amastre's arias (plus the overture) with Polish forces. Amastre is sung by the distinguished mezzo-soprano Jadwiga Rappé and Serse by Piotr Kusiewcz. Unfortunately Kusiewcz is a tenor, which means transposing all of Serse's music down an octave; the role was originally written for a castrato.

Handel did transpose roles down, but rarely by an octave and then only in dire emergency. My first reaction was sadness that they could not have chosen one of Handel's operas with a substantial tenor part: Tamerlano with the glorious role of Bajazet springs to mind. The effect of the downwards transposition is to render Serse more robust and more heroic. Kusiewicz takes the music and himself entirely seriously but with the heroic cast to the tenor's voice we lose much of the sardonic undercutting.

Kusiewicz has a fine technique, though it is rather 19th century in style. He does, however, manage to negotiate his way through the many virtuoso passages in the role. In the final aria on the disc, Crude furie degl'orridi abissi he copes brilliantly with the speeds set by Andrzej Mysinski and the Warsaw Soloists Concerto Avenna. The result is truly impressive, but naturally lacks the fleetness which we might expect in a higher voice.

Jadwiga Rappé has a very traditional sounding, dark contralto voice and so Amastre rather suits her. The role was written for a low contralto that specialised in singing male roles - though for Handel she sang mainly women - and of course, Amastre spends most of the opera disguised as a man. Rappé makes the most of her lower registers taking the vocal line down to well below the treble stave. This is truly impressive but whether it is in period or in character I'm not sure. There are passages when you would like her to lighten the sound and her duet with Serse, Gran pena e gelosia, is far too heavy with the vocal lines too 19th century in tone.

The disc includes some recitative, which enables the singers to give a little context to the arias.

The singers are accompanied most skilfully by Andrzej Mysinski and the Warsaw Soloists Concerto Avenna. Their account of the overture is brilliant and the fast passages are pretty fast paced. The group specialises in period-aware performances played on modern instruments. Unfortunately I found that the brilliance in sound comes at a price; by the end of the overture I found the tone rather hard-edged. Listening to the entire disc did not cause me to change my mind, though there are passages of beauty and tenderness as well.

The booklet includes a short article, in English, and the sung text in Italian, English and Polish. It does not include a plot summary, so some knowledge of the opera must be assumed.

We must, perhaps, be a little forgiving of the disc as it was recorded some twenty years ago. Allowances must be made for improvements in technique and scholarship. But all in all this is a slightly disappointing disc. There is some fine musicianship on display but it does not add up to a satisfying disc; only really for recommendation to those interested in the performers concerned.

Robert Hugill


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