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Figure presents a semi-staged performance of Handel’s Serse

Handel’s 1738 opera Serse (or Xerxes) is an exploration of power, love and human frailty. King Serse falls in love with the voice of his brother Arsamene’s fiancée, Romilda, and tries to use his authority to force her to marry him. The opera features some of Handel’s most original vocal writing including ‘Ombra Mai Fu’, but was not successful at its first production as it was in a different style to Handel’s other operas, as well as being much shorter.

Figure Ensemble, courtesy of Figure
Figure Ensemble, courtesy of Figure.

This performance of Serse was mounted by the group Figure, a recently formed historical performance ensemble, and, on this showing, its musical qualities cannot be faulted.

Originally intended for a castrato, the role of Serse was exquisitely sung by Cecilia Hall, demonstrating a solid technique and a rock-steady yet agile voice. Arsamene was portrayed by James Laing, revealing a smooth, creamy countertenor voice which was capable of real drama. Sarah Tynan (Romilda) essayed her coloratura arias with graceful ease, as did Anna Cavaliero as Atalanta, also in love with Arsamene and plotting against Romilda. Timothy Nelson provided much-needed comic relief as Elviro, Arsamene’s servant and Ariodate, Romilda and Atalanta’s father, whilst also demonstrating a flexible full-toned baritone.

The eighteen-piece orchestra, playing in what is believed to be eighteenth-century style on copies of period instruments, and conducted by Frederick Waxman, played with the lightness, grace and bounce that Handel’s music demands but does not always get. It was a real treat to hear two theorbos so enthusiastically played!

In sum, this production of Serse exhibited the very highest standards of musicianship and scholarship throughout. Totally superb!

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Sam Rayner’s direction, or, rather ‘over’ direction!

In a programme note he states that C18 audiences were “bewildered by the complexity of the narrative” and, of course, the first job as director is to ensure that the story is told as clearly as possible. He seems to have quickly forgotten this, hiding his singers in the orchestra pit, which would not have been as bad if the pit had been cleared of all extraneous materials such as unwanted music stands, first. Most of the cast also sang from the rear of the audience at various times, meaning that many could not see them, let alone hear them, and leaving the huge Holland Park stage totally bare but lit for long periods.

Rayner also employed six physical theatre actors/acrobats to “mime” behind and around the stage as each aria was being sung. This was very irritating and totally unnecessary – it was as if he did not believe that Handel’s music was good enough to stand on its own without his help. During “Ombra Mai Fu” the six-piece group formed a human ‘plane tree’ – and the audience found itself looking at that rather than listening to the music as it took the focus away completely. At other points throughout the opera, the acrobats ran around the stage holding up empty picture frames – I do not know why, and people around me whom I asked afterwards had no idea either!

Stylish costumes and minimalist set design were in the more than capable hands of Emma Hollows, whilst attempting to light all the spaces that the director used was Chris Burr.

As a concert performance, or listened to with one’s eyes closed, Serse would have gained my highest approbation, as musically this was one of the best events I have attended for some time.

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

King Serse falls in love with the voice of his brother’s beloved, and tries to use his authority to force her to marry him. An exploration of power, desire, and human frailty, Serse features some of Handel’s most striking music, including one of his most famous arias, ‘Ombra mai fu’. In this production, a physical theatre ensemble will bring the vibrant atmosphere of Serse’s court to life.

Figure is a recently-established historical performance ensemble that aims to represent the rising generation of performers, and to expand the scope and practices of historical music. Figure gives performances which are intimate and highly expressive, using light and space to create an environment which connects the music and its listeners as closely as possible.

Creative Team
Frederick Waxman Musical Director
Sam Rayner Director
Emma Hollows Design
Chris Burr Lighting
Olivia Zerphy Associate Director

Cast
Cecelia Hall Serse
Sarah Tynan Romilda
James Laing Arsamene
Anna Cavaliero Atalanta
Timothy Nelson Elviro
Ensemble
Alistair Bourne, Matteus Daniel, Simi Egbejumi-David, Arielle Lauzon, Caitlin Nicholas, Robery Penny

https://operahollandpark.com/

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Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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2 thoughts on “Figure presents a semi-staged performance of Handel’s Serse”

  1. Geraldine McMahon

    Marvellous review- the singing and orchestra were, indeed, superb. I too found the acrobatics on the stage totally distracting, confusing and noisy- in some parts of the action, they almost drowned out the orchestral playing. The acrobats and actors did work extremely hard and most enthusiastically but their efforts were superfluous to this production.
    However, the wonderful singing and the orchestral playing and conducting more than made up for it.

  2. I understand Geraldine’s take. The use of actors/ acrobats was, at times, over the top and it is right that extraneous action should not deflect attention from the arias.
    I too was irritated initially but got used to it more, as the performance progressed.
    This is a new company. They attracted very good and in some cases, also well-known singers.
    The production was a very fine effort overall (particularly the orchestra’s playing). I would certainly look out for Figure, in the future

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