Serse (Xerxes) fits very comfortably onto three CDs, and one can’t say that of many Handel operas. In fact in this performance it lasts well short of three hours and its compactness and theatrical memorable qualities have ensured that it’s remained one of Handel’s most popular stage works.
In this recording we have a cast as fine, corporately, as any that has tackled the work on disc. Anna Stéphany, assuming the title role, inhabits it with considerable skill and no little stylistic wisdom. Her well-supported mezzo gives us the work’s most popular tune, Ombra mai fu, in which Christian Curnyn keeps the Early Opera Company on the move without in any way harrying his soloist. It’s a mark of the set that tempi are keen but not breathless. It’s also the case that whilst instrumental colour is polished it’s not at all replete with the kind of occasionally discursive and ear-grabbing moments that can afflict - or enliven - other recordings of Handelian opera. In that respect Curnyn’s approach is without infelicitous gesture. Tempi are crisp and directional but the music never emerges as driven or subject to some perception alien to the natural limits of vocal phrase lengths.
As Romilda, there is the excellent Rosemary Joshua, whose soprano sounds appropriately youthful and vigorous. It’s noticeable how, in her Act I aria Và godendeo vezzozo e bello Curnyn ensure that the winds’ answering phrases are always audible. Joélle Harvey, who has been making a name for herself as a Handel soprano, rises to the role of Atalanta. She sings Sì, sì, mio ben, her Act I larghetto with flowing elegance, her vibrato not at all too oscillatory. The inimitable David Daniels reprises the role of Arsamene, Serse’s brother. The voice is still perfectly placed and his instinct for phraseology and stress is as tremendous as ever: one listen to Meglio in voi col mio partire will attest to that, still less the lovely Non so se sia la speme or the seductive legato he cultivates in his Act II aria Quella che tutta fé. Brindley Sherratt is no less personable a communicator, a strong but not blustery bass and highly efficient as Ariodate. Hilary Summers is always a characterful singer and her feisty contralto - powerful chest voice to the fore during Saprà delle mie offese - is put to good use as Amastre. I have no complaints about Andreas Wolf’s voice but his assumption of the role of the servant, Elviro, is the occasion for some rather questionable croaking impersonation. He has a nice ear for dynamics but I think he has been misled as to the effectiveness of his satiric vocalising.
Serse’s Act II is notable for its rapid series of ariosos and recitatives. It gives the music a breathtakingly unstoppable feeling, a sense of scenes running over and beyond themselves in a sheer escalation of drama. The cast proves up to the challenge and when the music stops, as it famously does for the showpiece ariaSe bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna, Stéphany is worthy of the music. Certainly, vocally and instrumentally, I’ve heard it taken more theatrically, indeed with more overt flair, but for a reading that lacks mannerism this is fine. To the charge that it lacks the ultimate in electric intensity, I would have to concede that it does. Still, as she shows in her Act III aria Crude furie she lacks for little in respect of tonal depth and mastery of divisions. The music screws up the tension still more in this final act, the shortest of the three at 40 minutes. A succession of quick arias, choruses and recitatives drives things remorselessly onward and here Curnyn’s unspectacular but thoughtful performance bears cumulative fruit.
This is a fine recording and a pack-leader at the moment for those who want this opera on disc. William Christie’s performance on Virgin lacks the consistency of Curnyn’s casting and Jean-Claude Malgoire’s 1979 Sony recording - with some first-rate singers including Barbara Hendricks, Caroline Watkinson and Paul Esswood - is subject to some of the conductor’s less sympathetic direction. There have been other recordings, but none so far to compare with this excellently engineered Chandos release.