George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Serse (1738) [166:00]
Anne Sofie Von Otter (mezzo) - Serse
Sandrine Piau (soprano) - Atalanta
Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenor) - Arsamene
Giovanni Furlanetto (bass) - Ariodate
Antonio Abete (bass) - Elviro
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz (soprano) - Romilda
Silvia Tro Santafé - Amastre
Les Arts Florissants Choeur et Orchestre/William Christie
rec. live, November 2003, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6407082 [3 CDs: 66:10 + 59:06 + 39:45]
It would be inaccurate to call Serse one of Handel’s most popular operas. That said, it certainly has a higher than average number of recordings. These reach all the way back to the days of Maureen Forrester and Owen Brannigan, to say nothing of the more recent contributions of Ivor Bolton and Nicholas McGegan. In fact its first aria, the famous Largo - more accurately titled Ombra mai fu - which gives the opera its fame. It would be a shame, however, if this was all of the opera that you ever knew because it’s one of Handel’s most diverse and interesting works. It contains varied situations, a comic, almost proto-buffo character, and a variety of different kinds of aria, not just wall-to-wall da capo. It’s still bound by the conventions of opera seria and its dramatic situations stretch belief, but the final happy-ever-after chorus is perhaps the most alluring opera finale that Handel composed. In fact, the third act contains music of valedictory power that is by turns beautiful and stirring.
Amidst a wide range of recordings this one holds its own very well, thanks mainly to the gorgeous playing of Les Arts Florissants. They are vigorous and engaging in the overture then play with unfeasible beauty in the famous Ombra mai fu. Throughout the opera they maintain a wonderful dichotomy of the sprightly and the sensual. This works brilliantly and they anchor the set so that one feels that every number, whatever its mood, is in safe hands. Christie’s choice of tempi always feel right and he never tries to swamp or upstage the singers.
As for the singers, they are very fine, though not unequivocally so. Anne Sofie von Otter, like many other members of the cast, is slow to get out of the starting block. Her performance of the famous Largo that opens the work is good, but for the whole of the first Act her interpretation is predominantly harsh rather than beautiful and at no point does she convince as an authoritative ruler. By the time of the second Act, however, she is more believable, conjuring up some marvellous coloratura in her great aria Se bramate d’amar, though her dramatic aria of fury in Act 3 sounds histrionic rather than enraged.
The servant Elviro is that rarest of things in a Handel opera: a comic character. It’s not something you expect in opera of this type but Handel carries it off rather well and it makes you regret that he didn’t turn to comedy more often. Antonio Abete plays the role convincingly, taking the wise approach that less is more and only seldom over-egging the pudding by exaggerating his role; the passage at the beginning of Act 2 where he is disguised as a flower-seller gets a little wearing. His singing is fine, though, carrying strength and character.
Like her imperial lover, Romilda conjures beautiful sounds, though they are somewhat empty in places: her Act 1 aria Nemmen con l’ombre d’infedelta, for example, is lovely but it seems to wander with little sense of purpose. Sandrine Piau’s Atalanta is enchanting, especially in her flirtation aria in Act 1. Her voice is the most instantly appealing of the ladies, making me regret that she was not given the more substantial role of Romilda. Her tender Act 2 aria, Voi mi dite, is ravishing, perhaps the highlight of the whole set. Likewise, Silvia Tro Santafé’s Amastre immediately makes you sit up and take notice because her voice has a colour entirely different to that of the singers around her and she uses it well to convey her character’s status as an outsider at Serse’s court. Her coloratura is also very good in her Act 1 revenge aria. She also has to convey the widest range of emotions and she crowns her interpretation with a lovely aria of regret in Act 3.
Giovanni Furlanetto’s bass is fine in a small role, but it takes a while for the ear to tune in to him as his first aria seems centre-less, the voice unfocused at times. Lawrence Zazzo is a rather chilly presence, though, with a somewhat pallid quality. The highlight of his interpretation is Arsamene’s tragic Act 3 aria which is arrestingly beautiful, sung with passion and intensity.
The competition for this opera is relatively strong, and many would feel that McGegan pips Christie to the post, but if you are fond of Les Arts Florissants then you will find a great deal to enjoy here. As with the rest of this series there is no booklet but the libretto (with English translation) and an interesting accompanying essay are given on an accessible CD-ROM
Simon Thompson 
Arrestingly beautiful, sung with passion and intensity.