‘One of the worst that Handel ever set to music’, ran a contemporary verdict on the libretto of Serse, whose ‘mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery’ fazed London audiences in 1738. History, of course, has had its revenge. Today the very qualities that puzzled its original hearers – the lightly ironic, occasionally farcical tone, the fluid structure (many short ariosos, relatively few full-dress da capo arias) – have made Serse one of Handel’s most attractive operas for stage directors and audiences alike. There are episodes of high seriousness, above all in the magnificent sequence of Act 2 arias beginning with Serse’s aria di bravura ‘Se bramate’. But much of the invention has an airy melodiousness, whether in the dulcet minuet songs for the coquettish Atalanta, or Serse’s invocation to a plane tree, ‘Ombra mai fu’, immortalised and sentimentalised as ‘Handel’s Largo’.
Until now the CD choice has been between the performances directed by Nicholas McGegan and William Christie. While there is much to enjoy in both, the Christie especially, they suffer from uneven casting. Not so this new recording, finely sung and conducted with style and spirit by Christian Curnyn. From the opening ‘Ombra mai fu’, taken flowingly (Anne Sofie von Otter and Christie are indulgently languorous here), Anglo-French mezzo Anna Stéphany sings superbly as the capricious Serse. Von Otter makes the king more of an absurd, if dangerous, psychopath. With her glowing, impassioned mezzo, Stéphany presents a more sympathetic character in arias such as the touching ‘Il core spera’, while giving full vent to Serse’s petulant wilfulness elsewhere. She hurls herself into the frenzied coloratura of ‘Se bramate’ and rages thrillingly in the torrential invocation to the furies just before the denouement.
As the heroine Romilda, Rosemary Joshua far eclipses her counterparts on the rival recordings, singing with sweet, sensuous tone and characterising deftly. She can be blithe, as in her Act 2 aria ‘Se l’idol mio’, but brings a fiery intensity to her agonised central aria, ‘È gelosia’. As her long-suffering lover Arsamene, David Daniels is at least a match for Lawrence Zazzo (with Christie), colouring his tone sensitively in the grief-laden ‘Non so se sia la speme’ and relishing the indignant coloratura brilliance of his one bravura aria, ‘Sì, la voglio’.
With her highly distinctive androgynous contralto, Hilary Summers suggests the pathos as well as the outrage of Serse’s wronged fiancée Amastre (Christie’s Silvia Tro Santafe turns her into a frenzied virago on speed); and Joélle Harvey catches the flighty grace, as well as the hints of deeper feelings, in Handel’s delicious arias for Atalanta. Brindley Sherratt, oakily sonorous of tone as the worthy-but-dim general Ariodate, and the incisive Andreas Wolf as an unhammy comic servant Elviro, complete a near-ideal cast. Once or twice – say, in Romilda’s aria ‘Chi cede al furore’ at the end of Act 1 – I thought Curnyn’s tempi a shade deliberate. But on the whole he paces the opera acutely, not least in the long stretches of recitative. For anyone wanting to acquire this jewel among Handel’s later operas, this beautifully recorded new version is the one to go for.