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Handelian metal

A concert performance of 'Serse',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


William Christie and Les Arts Florissants came to London's Barbican Concert Hall on Friday 28 November 2003 with a concert performance of Handel's Serse, having previously given the opera in staged performances in Paris directed by Gilbert Deflo. This, of course, prompted the usual thoughts about how London always seems to miss out on these international tours; whilst Paris and Caen get a full staging we have to make to with a concert. But as always with Les Arts Florissants, things were not that simple. The stage was laid out with a large acting area in front of the orchestra and the cast, wearing sundry subtle variants of concert dress, gave us a fully dramatic performance. No music stands, no vocal scores and some terrific singing actors; re-reading the rather mixed reviews of Deflo's original production, I realised that we had not missed very much at all.

From the opening notes of the overture, we were in good hands. Christie and Les Arts Florissants gave us a crisp and shapely overture and their enthusiasm was palpable. Anne Sofie von Otter, as Serse resplendent in brocade tunic and trousers, opened with a shapely account of the work's most famous number 'Ombra mai fu', signifying the splendors to come. Handel wrote the role of Serse for a man, a castrato, and the role of Serse's brother Arsamene for a woman, but he would have understood the need for the title role being sung by the star whatever their sex. To complement von Otter, Arsamene was taken by Lawrence Zazzo, a young American counter-tenor who has done a lot of work in Europe. With a fine stage presence and quite a rich voice, inevitably he is going to be compared to his countryman, David Daniels, but Zazzo's tone has more of a hint of steel under the velvet than Daniels does. In Act 1, Zazzo's powerful performance was marred by occasional sense of steeliness at the top and the odd snatched high note, but as the evening progressed his tone relaxed. He suffered finely; Arsamene is the main butt of Serse's anger as they both compete for the same woman -- Romilda. Played by Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Romilda has to spend the opera reiterating her faithfulness to Arsamene, but she opens with a pair of arias that are sheerly beautiful. They have got to be, Serse overhears them and falls in love with her. Norberg-Schulz failed to produce sufficiently ravishing tone in the opening, her voice was darker than I would have liked. But as Romilda suffers during the opera, Norberg-Schulz developed and gave a touching performance.

As her sister, Atalanta, Sandrine Piau took advantage of her copious opportunities to upstage her more serious sister. Atalanta is one of the roles in the opera which give Serse its comic overtones. Atalanta always seems to have a satirical edge and at the end she does not droop when she fails to capture Serse for herself, she simply announces that she's going off to catch another man. Rather than play her as Romilda's minx-like younger sister, Sandrine Piau made Atalanta a more worldly older sister and managed to steal the show with a brilliant aria closing Act 1, only marred by some rather unnecessary by-play with the leader of the orchestra. For this was a staging that not only took place in front of the orchestra, but in and amongst them as well, to usually good effect.

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Copyright © 1 December 2003 Robert Hugill, London UK


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