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.
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.
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.
Frederick Waxman Musical Director
Sam Rayner Director
Emma Hollows Design
Chris Burr Lighting
Olivia Zerphy Associate Director
Cecelia Hall Serse
Sarah Tynan Romilda
James Laing Arsamene
Anna Cavaliero Atalanta
Timothy Nelson Elviro
Alistair Bourne, Matteus Daniel, Simi Egbejumi-David, Arielle Lauzon, Caitlin Nicholas, Robery Penny