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27 Oct 2018

Handel's Serse: Il Pomo d'Oro at the Barbican Hall

Sadly, and worryingly, there are plenty of modern-day political leaders - both dictators and the democratically elected - whose petulance, stubbornness and egoism threaten the safety of their own subjects as well as the stability and security of other nations.

Serse, Il Pomo d’Oro, Barbican Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Franco Fagioli

 

But, the present-day doesn’t have a monopoly on narcissistic premiers and princes, and many historical prototypes seem to find their way into opera librettos of Baroque opera seria. Watching Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli’s Serse, King of Persia, huff and puff, rant and rave, swagger and bluster during Il Pomo d’Oro’s concert performance at the Barbican Hall (which followed performances in Lubljana, Vienna and Paris), it was perhaps fitting that the image of Donald Trump’s baby blimp, which floated over the streets of London during the President recent UK visit, came to mind. For Handel’s Serse certainly is tragi-comic, to the chagrin of contemporary commentators such as Charles Burney: “One of the worst that Handel ever set to music”, bemoaned the music historian after the premiere of the opera at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, on 15 th April 1738.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Burney was imposing the eighteenth-century taste for the repetitions and excesses ofopera seria on a libretto that had its roots in the seventeenth century - having been adapted by an unknown author from Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto for Giovanni Bononcini’s 1694 opera, Stampiglia’s text having itself been based on Nicolò Minato’s version of the Persian King’s antics for Francesco Cavalli in 1654. And, that the structures of the text set by Handel implied not an inexorable succession of rigid da capo arias but rather, as Handel supplies, a sequence of short airs of varied forms, which follow one another swiftly, often without ritornelli and little recitative.

Burney may have lamented the serio-comic tone of Handel’s Serse, but it was the “buffoonery” that he believed resulted in “feeble writing” which Il Pomo d’Oro frequently brought to the fore, sometimes at the expense of the music elegance of the score, and overlooking that Handel’s ironic twists on opera seria conventions and structures are more often witty and whimsical than rowdy or histrionic.

Fagioli encouraged us to mock Serse’s peevishness, infantilism and narcissism, thereby weakening our sense of the very real danger that such tyrants pose. The loyal Amastre was dismissed as a “perpetual nuisance” by the foot-stamping King in a frustrated fury, and when the upright Ariodate - whose own integrity prevented him from reading between the lines - took Serse at his word and betrothed his daughter, Romilda, to the wrong royal brother, I half expected a full-on ‘Red Queen’ hissy fit, “Off with his head!”, from the enraged monarch whose romantic plans had been thwarted.

The pace of Il Pomo d’Oro’s near-complete performance of the opera was fast, the dramatic flow of the seventeenth-century libretto structure pushed almost to excess. Musically there were benefits, the rapid sequence of songs seeming to spring spontaneously from the unfolding dramatic situations. But, the haste risked further undermining the ‘serious’ dimension of the drama and, given that the performers were in modern concert dress, perpetuating the perennial confusions and complications of the seria web of gender-crossing and disguise. The towering Jimmy Choo stiletto boots donned by Arsamene, sung by mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, and the ‘soldier’s uniform’ sported by Delphine Galou’s Amastre - a long black cardigan over a sparkling, back-less evening gown, might have had uninitiated audience members scratching their heads as to who was who, related to whom, on what basis their schemes and stratagems had been borne.

Despite this, although billed as a concert performance, the cast made a concerted effort to communicate the action, often singing confidently off-score, and carrying off the carefully choreographed exits and entrances. Moreover, not a single person present in the Barbican Hall could surely have failed to be bowled over by Fagioli’s dramatic commitment and acrobatic musical accomplishments. This was a truly ‘lived’ performance, physically and vocally. The soprano-like punch and precision at the top; the striking agility which spun reams and curlicues on a single, long breath; the ability to leap with accuracy and evenness across wide expanses - even venturing down into his bass voice before leaping back to his shining countertenor; all such feats were mesmerising.

‘Se bramate’ and, most especially, ‘Crude furie’ were electrified by explosive elaborations and ornamentations. Though such extravagance was undoubtedly impressive, initially I felt that the pyrotechnics resulted in a distortion of the phrasal, cadential and formal balance; but, the technical daring was, by the close, simply hypnotic - a thrilling, breath-taking expression of the King’s solipsistic immaturity. Perhaps Fagioli was striving to embody the overweening arrogance not just of the Persian premier but also of the role’s first interpreter, the soprano castrato Caffarelli - described by his teacher, Porpora, as “the greatest singer Italy had ever produced”, who was notoriously unpredictable and even served a spell in prison for assault. If so, he succeeded in resurrecting the castrato’s temper and tantrums, even if he did not revive the legendary refinement of Caffarelli’s liquid legato which Handel exploited in his slower airs. ‘Ombra mai fù’, though pure of tone, felt rather rushed, and the pathos of line in ‘It core spera e teme’ was lost in the floridity of the ornamentation. A little more simplicity at times would have bestowed equal weight on the sincerity of Handel’s music as on the drama’s comic excesses.

Fagioli’s exhilarating performance was far from being the only vocal delectation of the evening. As Romilda, Inga Kalna repeatedly coaxed beauty and expanse from Handel’s phrasing: that she had plenty of power in reserve enabled her to spin the most gossamer piano threads, as when expressing her love in ‘Nemmen con l’ombre’, and if there was a danger that such gestures might become a mechanical mannerism, then Kalna balanced delicacy with a sonorous, creamy tone which was effortlessly projected, most especially in ‘Chi cede al furore’, and flashes of fire in her vigorous Act 3 duet-argument with Genaux’s Arsamene, ‘Troppo oltraggi la mia fede, alma fiera’.

Genaux’s lower register did not project as well as her soprano range, but she offered much stylish singing and her performance grew progressively in stature. In so persuasively articulating the contrast between the pained pathos of ‘Quella che tutta fé’ and the impassioned hurt of ‘Sì, la voglio’, Genaux made Arsamene’s suffering one of the more convincingly tangible ‘human’ experiences of the evening.

Contralto Delphine Galou gave a similarly tasteful and composed performance as Amastre, and if the gentle warmth of her voice didn’t always carry effectively across the Hall, she showed terrific agility in her vengeful ‘Saprà delle mie offese’ in Act 1, and grace of line in the sparsely accompanied final cavatina, ‘Cagion son io’.

Much of the evening’s warmest humour came courtesy of the mischievous, insouciant wilfulness of Francesca Aspromonte’s Atalanta and the Mozartian directness of Biagio Pizzuti’s Elviro. Aspromonte’s lovely rich tone made this Atalanta a more sympathetic and forgivable character than is sometimes the case. Resourceful and resilient, despite her stated romantic intentions Atalanta could not resist ‘vocally flirting’ with leader Evgeny Sviridov, who was more than happy to respond with his own brief serenade, and at the close she shrugged off the failure of her romantic stratagems, declaring herself ready to look for love elsewhere - and catching the opportunistic Elviro’s eye in the process.

Pizzuti almost stole the show in a minor role to which he brought terrific comic presence - and considerable vocal style. Disguised, somewhat improbably, as a flower seller, in a flamboyant purple head-scarf, and a little encumbered by his large music score and plastic bouquet, Pizzuti was an engaging stooge, creeping around the instrumentalists, hamming wickedly to Katrin Laza’s colourful bassoon playing; his final aria, ‘Del mio cara baco amabile’, was a smooth and suave paean to Bacchanalian indulgence and relaxed revelry. Andreas Wolf’s Ariodate was no less impressive: his powerful, focused bass sailed through the vocal phrases with easy projection, terrific diction and even tone. It was quite a feat for Wolf to convey both the warrior’s haplessness amid the amorous machinations off the battlefield and his accomplishment at manoeuvres in the field. One could truly sympathise when his exasperated expression conveyed all of his exhaustion and incredulity: Oh, for the quiet life of soldiering!

This was a meticulous prepared performance. Director Maxim Emelyanychev was an almost hyperactive and vigorously gestural guide, striving unceasingly to coax the most energetic tone from his small band of instrumentalists and precisely pointing the minutest of accents, swells and surges. In command of every detail, he gave encouragement with whole body, scarcely seeming to have time to be seated at the keyboard. Perhaps it was the small numbers, but I didn’t always find sufficient brightness or variety in the instrumental timbre, though the playing was technically assured and there was a lovely lightness to the dance-like accompaniments, as well as effective dynamic range and contrast.

As the inevitable and improbable lieto fine ran its course, Elviro sat to the side with head in hands, and issued a snide, noisy yawn. Ironically, through the three hours of music, there was nothing at all in the vocal and instrumental performances that might induce such an exhalation. This was an exciting, entertaining romp through the rough, the ridiculous and the romantic, brought to a calming close by Romilda’s sweet, and infectious, air, ‘Caro voi siete’.

Il Pomo d’Oro return to the Barbican Hall in May 2019 to perform Handel’s Agrippina with Joyce DiDonato in title role and Fagioli as Nerone. Don’t miss it.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Serse (concert performance)

Il Pomo d’Oro ; Maxim Emelyanychev (director/harpsichord), Franco Fagioli (Serse), Vivica Genaux (Arsamene), Delphine Galou (Amastre), Inga Kalna (Romilda), Francesca Aspromonte (Atalanta), Biagio Pizzuti (Elviro), Andreas Wolf (Ariodate)

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 26th October 2018.

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