~HWV 40~

Virgin Veritas 5-45711-2
3 CDs
full price
Live recording in 2003.
Released in 2004.

Serse: Anne-Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Arsamene: Lawrence Zazzo, countertenor
Amastre: Silvia Tro SantaFe, mezzo-soprano
Ariodate: Giovanni Furlanetto, bass
Romilda: Elisabeth Norberg-Schulz, soprano
Atalanta: Sandrine Piau, soprano
Elviro: Antonio Abete, baritone

Les Arts Florissants (on period instruments)
Music Director: William Christie
Stage Director: Gilbert Deflo





Serse is one of Handelís later operas (1738); it only saw a handful of performances before falling from the repertoire for a couple of centuries.  Nonetheless it is one of his greatest works, with particular appeal for modern audiences.  In its sympathetic treatment of people who behave frivolously and suffer seriously if amusingly as a result, it anticipates Cosž fan tutte.  As Terence Best points out in the liner notes for this recording, it also harks back to an earlier, pre-opera seria time.  It is certainly time for a good recording of this work.  The only previous contenders were an oldish, dullish Malgoire version, a rather rough live recording with Ivor Bolton, and a very disappointing McGegan effort with dreary singing.  While Christieís is the best entry to date, it is not the outstanding set that might have been hoped for.

This is also a recording of a live performance, with much extraneous noise skilfully edited out, although it does surface here and there.  At least it appears to be complete.  The singing is very uneven.  Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role seems rather tired;  her voice lacks the steady pearly tone of her earlier work, and her vibrato seems more noticeable.  Only in the great aria wherein Serse discovers that willing oneself to fall in love can have serious consequences ('Il core spera e teme') does she really deliver vocally and dramatically.  As Romilda, Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz is (as in Tamerlano) not really sounding in her home repertoire with not just a heavy vibrato but also intonation problems especially noticeable in 'Chi cede al furore'.  Without a strong primo uomo and prima donna, the enterprise is not going to be of the first rank.  There are however compensations in the other roles.

Sandrine Piau inevitably delights as Atalanta, with her flexible accurate soprano coupled with an insouciant approach to this delicious role.  Lawrence Zazzo as Arsamene is one of the best of the latest generation of countertenors, with a firm masculine yet refined quality of singing.  Amastre is another juicy role for an alto voice, and baroque specialist Silvia Tro Santafť makes the most of it.  Antonio Abete as Elviro, one of Handelís rare bassi buffi, has a fine old time making a meal of the comic elements of his role, and Giovanni Furlanetto also enjoys himself as that old idiot Ariodate.

Christieís approach to Handel is always spirited and graceful, but lacking a certain incisiveness, is perhaps more suited to the French baroque repertoire in which he has specialised.  Overall there is a certain lack of dramatic impetus, despite its being a live recording.  Only in the third act do we get a sense of real drama.  Overall, while this can be accounted the best commercial recording of Serse available, there is definitely a need for another.

© Sandra Bowdler - December 2004

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