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GRAMOPHONE ( 12 / 2018)
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C Major 748004

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Reviewer: Richard Wigmore

From Figaro and Così downwards, comic opera stagings today rarely escape without a disturbing final twist. This Serse from Frankfurt runs true to type. ‘It comes to a happy ending’, proclaims the sketchy booklet note. ‘Arsamene and Romilda, as well as Xerxes and Amastre, find each other again.’ Well, that’s not what we see here. At the hasty denouement, Amastre, formerly abandoned by Serse, holds a pistol first to his head, then to her own, before Serse briefly ‘repents’. As the curtain falls Amastre looks traumatised, while Serse, having threatened all and sundry, seems about to shoot himself. All this goes right against the grain of Handel’s serene, pensive final coro hymning true love.

You might say that this sour ending is the logical outcome of director Tilmann Köhler’s vision, where the tyrannical, selfregarding Serse is capricious to the point of instability, liable to turn vicious at any moment. In his Act 1 aria ‘Di tacere’ he seems on the verge of raping Romilda, the object of his infatuation. In the libretto and Handel’s music she is presented as the more serious of the two sisters, unswervingly devoted to Serse’s brother Arsamene. Here she is as flighty as her sister Atalanta, sexually attracted to Serse, as the booklet photo makes clear. Things are further complicated by an unscripted attraction between Atalanta and Arsamene. There are cat fights between the sisters; and at one point we get a freeze frame of the ‘wrong’ pairings that evokes the partner-swapping of Così fan tutte. It’s my guess that Così’s ambivalences and problematic ending influenced Köhler’s whole conception of Serse.

Yet while the director plays up the elements of chaos (epitomised by the set’s progressively trashed dinner table) and incipient cruelty, his modern-dress staging, complete with video installations, is theatrically compelling and psychologically convincing. In a uniformly fine, camerafriendly cast, all the singers throw themselves with gusto into their roles and interact vividly. Amid the production’s physicality, Köhler is unafraid of stillness at moments of reflection, whether in the arias for the put-upon Arsamene – movingly performed by the deep-toned countertenor Lawrence Zazzo – Amastre’s tender ‘Cagion son io’, or the chastened Atalanta’s minuet song ‘Voi mi dite’, sung with poise and grace by Louise Alder.

Earlier in the opera Alder plays the minx to the life as she sharpens her claws in pursuit of Arsamene. Her feeling for the Handelian line and sparkling coloratura are matched by the American soprano Elizabeth Sutphen, whose wilful, strongly sung Romilda is emphatically not a woman to be messed with. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s powerful mezzo catches both Amastre’s outrage (not least in a sulphurous ‘Anima infida’) and her vulnerability. Of the two basses, Brandon Cedel sings with sturdy resonance as the worthy-but-dim general Ariodate, while Thomas Faulkner’s amusing but unhammed Elviro irresistibly suggests a proto-Leporello in his backchat with his master Arsamene. As the trigger of the opera’s comic-cruel mayhem, Gaëlle Arquez rightly dominates, vocally and dramatically, in the huge role of Serse, written for the castrato-fromhell Caffarelli. Her warm, flexible mezzo soars easily above the stave, she phrases generously, and brings a mingled fire and intense pathos to Serse’s central aria di bravura ‘Se bramate’.

Constantinos Carydis sets languorous tempos in one or two numbers and can arbitrarily introduce solo strings where Handel prescribes tutti. For reasons I can’t fathom, Act 2 ends not with Romilda’s avowal of enduring love ‘Chi cede al furore’, here displaced to Act 3, but with Serse’s meditative ‘Il core spera’, which is then cut off in mid-sentence. But on the whole Carydis’s direction, always responsive to the singers, meshes well with the production – though the alert orchestra can suffer in the balance. If Köhler’s Serse leaves a slightly nasty taste in the mouth, I enjoyed it at least as much as Nicholas Hytner’s famous ENO production that balances elegant artifice with clever comic gags (Philips, 5/93). And for freshness and consistency of singing, the Frankfurt performance wins hands down.

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