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William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]
12 Jul 2010

Handel’s Serse (Xerxes) at Iford Manor

Something rather extraordinary happened to opera seria in 1738. The acknowledged master of that time, London’s George Frideric Handel, presented two new operas at the King’s Theatre: Faramondo and Serse.

G. F. Handel: Serse

Xerxes: William Purefoy; Arsamene: Andrew Radley; Amastre: Kristin Finnigan; Romilda: Verity Parker; Atalanta: Kristy Swift; Elviro: William Townend; Ariodate: Jonathan Brown. Orchestra: La Nuova Musica, directed/conducted by David Bates. Director: David Freeman. Designer: Louie Whitemore.

Above: William Purefoy as Xerxes [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]


They were stylistically very different and with the latter the German-born composer threw caution to the winds both musically and dramatically.

It was a bad call at the time as Serse flopped completely. The trouble was that he dared to change a tried and tested formula: the wholly serious, or tragic, seria format was infiltrated by comic or buffo elements; he mixed characters of both high and low class within the drama, and he even tinkered with the classic A-B-A da capo form of the arias. In Serse much of the vocal music is in arioso form, which drives the action forward more than the traditional, more musically complex da capo format. All this was too much for London audiences at the time and Handel lost money and soon after abandoned opera for the oratorio form. Luckily for us, today we can appreciate his innovations and revel in them — as indeed did the audience at Iford Opera in Wiltshire last Friday night.

Iford-2010_-Andrew-Radley--.gifAndrew Radley as Arsamene [Photo courtesy of Iford Opera]

Once again, Iford Arts is to be congratulated for rising so magnificently above the apparent limitations of its charming venue — one could indeed argue that those very limitations of size and accessibility produce something special time and again and last night was no exception. Iford encourages young talent and in its regular offerings of Handel masterpieces in intimate surroundings it also encourages the singers to concentrate on expression and colour, as they do not need to worry about pushing their voices.

The usual convoluted Handel plot of misplaced affections, thwarted plans, ladies (and men) in disguise and the triumph of love and duty (in varying degrees) was efficiently translated into the tiny, greenery-draped colonnaded space that is the delightful Iford Cloister by director David Freeman. Although advertised as “Serse”, the opera was given in English and this “Xerxes” was a translation/edit by Andrew Jones which revived memories of the famous Hytner production of the 1980’s in its language, if not its staging. The lively score, regretfully drastically abridged, was offered in spicy miniature by the well-regarded players of La Nuova Musica directed from the harpsicord by David Bates who encouraged some really meaty, full-blooded playing from his 10 piece ensemble. In Acts I and II the cast were somewhat depressingly attired in budget-store casuals with a bit of sequin tat here and there to suggest royalty (one felt particularly for the female singers who suffered very unflattering wardrobes — surely at odds with the story?) but come Act III things improved a little. A few pyrotechnics, many tiny candles, and a clever exploding model bridge (to take King Xerxes across the Hellespont into Greece) made the most of the tiny stage area.

KristinFinnigan-_-Photo-Ral.gifKristin Finnigan [Photo by and courtesy of Ralph Ripley]

More importantly, there was much to admire vocally with some excellent singing from the young cast, many of whom are at the beginning of their careers yet showed remarkable histrionic as well as musical abilities in this most demanding of genres. There was no one outstanding performer, but we left with perhaps three strong memories: the exciting contralto voice of young Kristin Finnigan (Amastre) which promises to help revive the great tradition of this most English of voice types, the impressive comic timing and agile baritone of William Townend (Elviro) and the expressive warm-toned countertenor of Andrew Radley (Arsamene). Verity Parker impressed with some spot-on high coloratura as Romilda whilst also singing with some nice supple tone. She was contrasted effectively with Kristy Swift in the soubrette role of Atalanta who brought out the foxiness of this character with some sparkling high notes and agile phrasing. Rather unusually, this production gave the title role to a countertenor, the more experienced William Purefoy. These days, it’s more often a mezzo soprano role (although written by Handel for a soprano castrato of great renown, Caffarelli) but here at Iford the tiny stage and proximity of the audience enables the less powerful countertenor voice to take it on. Purefoy coped well enough with the high tessitura of this demanding role, if not convincing us dramatically. His was no dangerously vindictive King but rather a placid, slightly academic, royal. This was particularly so in the scenes with his stage brother Prince Arsamenes, when Radley acted for both of them. Purefoy is certainly a good singer (his “rage” aria, Crudie furie in Act III was efficiently despatched despite its huge demands on the singer) but rather miscast here.

The role of the bluff, if dim, General Ariodate was robustly taken by baritone Jonathan Brown who made much of his limited role whilst contralto Kristin Finnigan was forced to do the same. How one longed to hear more of Amastre’s music and less of her creeping around the cloister, forever listening to the plotting of others’ loves. Finnigan might just be something special in the making — directors take note.

Cutting Handel is a fact of life — unpleasant but sometimes necessary — but for this writer there were just too many “cuts too far”. So many important, and lovely, arias went unheard. Everyone comes to Iford by car (there is no evening public transport in this idyllic rural location) so why not revel in more of Handel’s sublime music and get home half an hour later? After all, another thirty minutes in this beautiful place, with music of this quality, is hardly an imposition.

© Sue Loder 2010

Serse, by G.F. Handel continues on the 13th, 14th, 16th and 17th July at Iford, near Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, U.K. More information:

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