Saturday 19 November 2016

Balanced musicality: Handel's Serse from the Early Opera Company

Anna Stéphany - photo Marco Borggreve
Anna Stéphany - photo Marco Borggreve
Handel Serse; Anna Stephany, Claire Booth, Rupert Enticknap, Keri Fuge, Rachael Lloyd, Edward Grint, Callum Thorpe, Christian Curnyn; the Early Opera Company at St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 18 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A beautifully musical account of Handel's late semi-comic opera

Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company returned to Handel's Serse (an opera they have recorded) for a concert performance at St John's Smith Square on 18 November 2016. Anna Stéphany sang the title role, with Claire Booth as Romilda, Rupert Enticknap as Arsamene, Keri Fuge as Atalanta, Rachael Lloyd as Amastre, Edward Grint as Elviro and Callum Thorpe as Ariodate. Clare Booth was announced as having been ill but that she would still sing, whilst Rachael Lloyd had stood in for an ailing Emma Carrington.

Handel's Serse is a slightly strange beast. It premiered quite late in Handel's operatic career, in 1738, and he would write only two more Italian operas, Imeneo (1741) and Deidamia (1742). And during this late period, when he was freed from the pressure of pleasing his aristocratic patrons in the Royal Academy, he rather experimented with forms, often abandoning the strict formal structures of opera seria. The results rather puzzled his audience, Serse was performed only five times and never revived.

The mixed nature of the opera, with its buffo elements, the fact that less than half the arias are da capo (and of these, two lack a formal exit afterwards), the way Handel fluidly responds to the drama with a mix of snatches of aria, arioso and recitative, all these are attractive to us today. The piece contains a mix of comic and serious characters, and with all of them Handel asks us to take their emotions seriously. The opera might have comic elements, but it is not slapstick and as Winton Dean has commented (in his book on Handel's opera serias) Handel's approach is often close to that of Mozart.

It was clear that Christian Curnyn and his cast took quite a serious view of the piece, perhaps unsurprising since this was a concert performance with little rehearsal time to organise large scale comic set pieces. But there was still a vein of comedy running through it, with Edward Grint's Elviro sporting a head-scarf and character voice for his flower seller scene in Act Three. There were some lovely sparkling moments of dialogue, as the cast sparked off each other in the recitatives a witty sense of character, whilst Keri Fuge's Atalanta was a delightful creation with a lovely sense of naughty flirtatiousness.

The arias were nearly all taken seriously, with a consistently impressive approach to Handel's music. This was an evening with some uniformly fine singing from this well balanced cast. Given the superb quality of the singing it seems churlish to cavil, but there were occasions when the large scale arias could have done with the same sense of dramatic character as the recitative. But if you were content to sit back and simply enjoy fine music, superbly sung then this was certainly for you.

One point about the presentation was the generally relaxed view which Christian Curnyn took. His tempi were often quite relaxed, in both the recitative and arias, but this seemed to extend to the presentation. So that we had breaks between scenes as characters walked on and off. I think that the general dramatic tenor of the work would have benefited from a greater dramatic urgency in the presentation with fewer gaps.

Anna Stéphany made a finely expressive Serse, singing with wonderfully even tone and effortless control in the passage-work. This was a classy and finely classical performance, her opening Ombrai mai fu serious and well modulated. We had plenty of amused slyness and imperiousness in the dialogue, but in the arias her Serse was quite a serious, intense person. I have to confess that I sometimes wanted a bit more of a flash of temperament in the music, even her final aria Crude furie seemed a little too controlled, but all her arias were fabulous, poised and beautifully crafted.

Though Claire Booth was announced as ailing, there were no obvious ill effects in her performance. Goodness is rather difficult to embody, and Booth's Romilda was full of character. She and Rupert Enticknap as Arsamene really brought up the two characters' intensity of feeling with a sense of them loving to hate each other as the misunderstandings in the plot built up, including a lovely show of temperament in their Act Three duet. Booth showed plenty of strength character in her arias, giving us a sense that this Romilda was decisive and strong minded. E gelosia in Act Two was almost vehement, whilst her later aria Chi cede al fuore was appealingly direct.

Rupert Enticknap's Arsamene was a poised lover, with Quella che tutta fe in Act Two being rather poignant and Si, la voglio firmly determined, whilst Amor, tiranno amor in Act Three was beautifully sung yet perhaps a little too serious in intent. Enticknap mined a vein of elegant melancholy in his arias, and on occasion I wished for a little more dramatic emotion, but in the recitative had a nice sense of self-possession and temperament,

Keri Fuge's Atalanta was a complete delight, as she made the most of every opportunity and brought her sense of the character's sly scheming and winsome flirtatiousness to both aria and recitative. Fuge had a surprisingly vibrant voice for this soubrette character, but there was no denying the stylish way she had with Handel's music. Rachael Lloyd made a serious and intent Amastris, singing with a finely controlled vigour and dramatic intensity.

Edward Grint was an equally delightful Elviro, taking the character quite seriously, except for the obvious buffo moments (an entirely legitimate approach) rather than giving us a complete buffo performance. Just occasionally I would have liked a little bit more of a smile in the voice in the arias, but Grint had a nice feel for Handel's music and a lovely way with it. Callum Thorpe brought his finely dark voice to bear on Ariodate, giving the character a seriousness which perhaps he did not deserve.

The opera was, inevitably cut, but Christian Curnyn had succeeded in preserving the lovely variety of the music. He and the orchestra of the Early Opera Company gave us a stylish account of the overture and sinfonia to Act Three, as well as providing some lively and beautifully shaped accompaniments.

St John's Smith Square was very full, and the audience very appreciative, showing that there is great enthusiasm for this type of venture. And really, we do not get to hear Handel's Italian operas often enough sung with this degree of balanced musicality.

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