Serse (DVD)
~ HWV 40 ~

Recorded in 2000.
Released in 2005.

Serse: Paula Rasmussen, mezzo-soprano
Arsamene: Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano
Amastre: Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano
Ariodate: Marcello Lippi, baritone
Romilde: Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano
Atalante: Sandrine Piau, soprano
Elviro: Matteo Peirone, bass

Ludwigshafener Theaterchor
Les Talens Lyriques  (on period instruments)
Music Director: Christophe Rousset
Stage Director: Michael Hampe
TV Director: Philip Behrens

(Recorded at the Semperoper, Dresden)


Serse is not as light a work as the 20th century tradition would like us to readily believe. Though Elviro is definitely a comic character who underlines or causes the irony of certain situations, he is a relic of the 17th century Venetian libretto on which the opera is based and is sometimes there to emphasize the seriousness of other situations. Concerning Atalante, she is as much manipulative as frivolous. Fundamentally, Serse is the tragedy of the main character’s relationship with power, with others and, in fact, with himself. Those difficulties are symbolised by the beloved plane tree, perfectly used in his staging by Michael Hampe. We thus assist to Serse’s progress towards the cathartic fury which breaks out during the third act with ‘Crude furie degli orridi abissi’. During this superb aria di furore – given a great performance here by Paula Rasmussen – Serse sets ablaze his tree and in a few instants it is totally burned. The lieto fine is then able to take place, during which another tree is brought to Serse, almost the same, but as a bonsai. Extreme passions are now under command, reason governs again.


The stage director does not neglect the ‘comic’ side of the work, but this example enables us to catch all the cleverness of his approach. He emphasizes the deepness of the feelings and the peculiar rhythm of this opera – In which many action arias are found – and demonstrates in a brilliant way that neither stasis nor agitation are needed to accompany an aria, even a da capo one. Furthermore, the variations sung in those da capos are not only often excellent from a musical point of view, but do have meanings linked to the action which takes place on stage.


The quality of the costumes, the scenery and the lighting also deserves to be praised. We are transposed to an oriental style environment near the beginning of the 20th century which makes us think of the last days of the Ottoman Empire. Not only does this transposition work perfectly from both historical and geographical points of views, but the images offered are often very nice from an aesthetic point of view and the realisation of the more spectacular scenes (with flags flying in the wind, elephants…) are full of a certain grandeur.


Last but not least, the interpreters superbly complete the achievement of this production. Though there is some stiffness in the high notes of some singers – and subsequent accuracy problems – the performance is often splendid both vocally and theatrically. Paula Rasmussen produces a fantastic performance and is, like Ann Hallenberg, totally convincing as male characters and definitely confirm that no countertenor has yet been heard who would have the vocal potential for these low soprano parts. Sandrine Piau and Patricia Bardon are at the same standard and Isabelle Bayrakdarian’s more spicy voice completes ideally the list of the main singers. It is definitely rare to listen and see a cast without any casting errors. Furthermore, Christophe Rousset’s conducting can suffer no reproach and possesses the theatricality that it sometimes lacks during concert performances. The only small regret could be the few cuts made in the score.


People who are only interested in being entertained by spectacular but superficial Handel opera productions full of gags and with few links to the music and libretto can go their own way. For others who might be interested in being entertained and moved by productions that are both respectful to the work and offer strong and personal views, this is highly recommended. This is definitely the best production of a Handel opera available on DVD.

© Philippe Gelinaud - August 2005

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