Opera Album Review: An Award-Winning Recording of Handel’s Most Comical Opera

By Ralph P. Locke

Mary Bevan, silvery soprano beloved in Boston, enchants anew in one of Handel’s most frequently performed and recorded operas.

Serse (Xerxes), George Frideric Handel

Lucy Crowe (Romilda), Mary Bevan (Atalanta), Daniela Mack (Amastre), Emily D’Angelo (Serse), Paula Murrihy (Arsamene), William Dazeley (Elviro), Neal Davies (Ariodate).

The English Concert, cond. Harry Bicket.

Linn CKD 709 [3 CDs] 173 minutes.

Serse is one of Handel’s most frequently performed and recorded operas, perhaps second only to Giulio Cesare. Part of the appeal surely has to do with the central character, the Persian king known to readers of Herodotus as Xerxes, whose forces struggled in battle over many years against the Greeks.

But the purely musical and dramatic features of the work far exceed any elements that have been taken from military history. In fact, the work seems to reflect, if anything, stories about Xerxes’ life in leisure in retirement more than his years of combat. Still, one scene plays out near the famous bridge that Xerxes commanded his soldiers to build over the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) in a vain attempt at reaching Greece to conquer it.

The work is based on a libretto that Bononcini set in 1694, which itself derived from a libretto set by Cavalli in 1655. The libretto also preserves many features typical of Cavalli’s operas and others from mid-17th-century Venice, such as short arias rather than the full ABA ones that would become normative with Alesssandro Scarlatti and others (including Handel) half a century later. In addition, there are frequent blurrings of boundaries: a chorus may be followed by a solo passage and then be repeated; there are two duettinos: respectively a minute and less than two minutes long; an aria may be interrupted by recitative and then restart; a recitative may begin with one character and be interrupted by two singing in harmony; and so on. Furthermore, there is an explicitly comic character, the servant Elviro, who speaks in rural dialect and, at one point, disguises himself as a flower-vendor. He seems at times like an anticipation of Mozart’s Leporello or Rossini’s Figaro.

The resulting opera was much loved and praised in London in 1738, and clearly has built up circles of admirers today as well. The very first aria has for centuries been the most famous one from any of Handel’s operas, “Ombra mai fu” (often called simply “Handel’s Largo”).

The two oddities, for modern purposes, are that the title role of Xerxes (in Italian: Serse) was a castrato, and that one of the male roles, that of Serse’s brother Arsamene, was originally taken by a woman. On many of the ten or so previous recordings, either Serse or Arsamene is assigned to a countertenor (such as Franco Fagioli or Lawrence Zazzo). Here, both are mezzos. Considering that Amastre, the foreign princess whom Serse rejects at the outset of the opera but eventually marries, is also — and was always — a mezzo rather than soprano (presumably to make it plausible when she arrives disguised as a man), we get a lot of lower-voiced female singing here, with each of the three mezzos playing either a man or a woman in male disguise.

Mary Bevan (Atalanta) and Lucy Crowe (Romilda) in Handel’s Serse, presented by Harry Bicket and the English Concert at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

Fortunately, all three mezzos are quite capable. So are the two low-voiced males who play, respectively, the comical servant Elviro and Ariodate (father of the largely dignified Romilda and the flirty Atalanta). All the singers are, I gather, British, but they enunciate the Italian text well and understand its dramatic point at every moment. I should add that two of the three mezzos (the Serse and the Amastre) sound at times more like altos, so satisfyingly do their voices bloom at the bottom. Indeed, the somewhat individual vocal qualities and interpretive manners of all three mezzos helped me tell them apart by ear after a while.

Still, the true glory of this recording, which recently won the Limelight Magazine (Australia) award for best opera recording of the year, comes from the two sopranos, Lucy Crowe and Mary Bevan, as the sisters Romilda and Atalanta. I have rarely heard such accomplished Baroque-era singing as we have here from these two: vocal purity and warmth combined, imaginative embellishments, astute suggestions of a character’s mental state (yearning, pouting, and so on) — it’s all here, and becomes even more impressive the more closely one listens.

I might have expected the two sopranos to take each other’s role instead: Lucy Crowe is marvelous at suggesting the scheming thoughts that are actually more typical of Atalanta. But I’m not complaining. The casting puts a new spin on things, and this works well. I was already a confirmed Bevan fan (I loved her in the Boston Handel and Haydn Society’s recent recording of Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass), and I see that the Boston Globe agreed with me (about her 2022 performance in Haydn’s “Theresienmesse”). Now I’m a devout Crowe-ite as well.

Harry Bicket has long been a go-to conductor for Baroque opera at many of the world’s major opera houses and summer festivals. I delighted hearing and seeing him conduct at Glimmerglass and in several radio and movie-theater HD transmissions from the Met. In recent years he has been the music director of the San Francisco Opera and Santa Fe Opera. In short, he has become an American treasure.

Harry Bicket conducted Handel’s Serse. Photo: Richard Termine

The period-instrument players here are in total command of the music, and Bicket is keen to the shifts in dramatic focus and tension as the opera goes along. He seems particularly responsive to the capabilities of each of his singers, enabling them to do what they do best.

If you want an introduction to Handel opera (or Baroque opera, generally) at its best, this new recording of Serse might be just the thing. If you don’t mind the sound of a superb countertenor — or even like it, as some of us do — then one of the several previous recordings (conducted by William Christie, Nicholas McGegan, Ivor Bolton, Maxim Emelyanychev, or others) might serve you even better because of the greater distinctions in vocal timbre that this provides.

Excellent booklet, including the libretto in Italian and clear English.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York ArtsOpera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). The present review first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here with kind permission.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts