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Friedrich HÄNDEL (c.1685--1759)
Xerxes HWV 40 1737/38 [2:51:53]
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
CLASSICS B108010 [3 CDs: 69:00 + 63:30 + 40:23]
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.
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
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.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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