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Serse premiered on April 15, 1738 and was the last attempt of Handel to revive the popularity of Italian opera among London's audiences as tastes changed in the wake of The Beggar's Opera – a ballad opera in English by John Gay (1685-1732). Handel reduced the amount of recitative just enough to carry forward the drama and integrated it with a mix of short arias and full-fledged da capo arias. These follow a pattern of stanza A, stanza B, with A often repeated twice, allowing full display of the main characters' emotions as well as ample scope for the singers' virtuosity, such as rapid runs and divisions in the A repeat. One could say this condensation anticipated the mix of the comic and serious in such works as Mozart's dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni.
Middle East exoticism was a popular theme in the operas of the period such as Vivaldi's Bajazet (1735), Cavalli's Xerse (1654), Giovanni Bononcini's Xerxes (1694), and Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) with its janissary music. The libretto was an adaption of Silvio Stampiglia's for Bononcini, which in turn, prompted Cavalli to draw upon one by Nicolò Minato. Composers of the period did not benefit from copyright laws and were not obsessed with originality, freely "stealing" from others or repurposing their own work. Handel "adapted" some of Bononcini's score for his own Serse.
The plot has little to do with the historic Xerxes I of Persia (519-465 BCE), much less Herodotus' fanciful account in his Histories. Serse is not a strict opera seria but mixes comical situations, such as the Persian king's bizarre obsession for plane trees with the usual web of A loves B who loves C who is loved by D with an E, in disguise, who loves A! King Xerxes is engaged to Amastre but wants to marry Romilda, daughter of his vassal Ariodate. However, Romilda is in love with Xerxes' brother Arsamene. Not to complicate the plot, Romilda's sister, Atalanta, is determined to marry Arsamene herself. Amastre disguises herself as a man and visits the court. There is a choice comic roll of Elviro, Arsamene's bumbling servant.
Act I, scene 1 introduces the main characters, develops the clash between Serse and Arsamene and leading to the latter's banishment. Sc. 2 is set at the famous boat-bridge over the Hellespoint. Serse rewards his successful general Ariodate by offering to marry Romilda to "a member of the Serse family, equal in blood to himself." (This ambiguity leads to the wrapping up of the tangled loves in the end of Act III.)
Act II features Elviro's disastrous delivery of Arsamene's letter for Romilda to her rival sister, Atalanta, who gives it to Serse. He uses it to make Romilda believe her love has been betrayed, Romilda resists his attempts to win her love. Elviro witnesses the collapse of the boat-bridge in a sudden storm.
Act III: The true lovers learn of Atalanta's treachery, take advantage of Ariodate's misunderstanding of Serse's orders, and get married. Amastri removes her disguise and Serse is shamed into marrying her.
This production was very semi-staged. The singers wore stylized costumes and sang their roles while carrying their copies of the score. Stage director Paige Whitley-Bauguess effectively blocked the cast and gave them expressive gestures. The producer was Suzanne Rousso.
The large orchestra of HIP instruments was under the direction of cellist Brent Wissick who frequently played in the continuo with harpsichordist Elaine Funaro. They were often joined, with delicious effect, by the Baroque guitar or lute played by Salome Sandoval. Suggestive flavor was given to the orchestra by the pair of recorders, played by Jennifer Streeter and Will Thauer. The strings were augmented by the superbly played Baroque trumpet of Patrick Dougherty, delightful pairs of Baroque oboes played by Thauer and Alicia Chapman, and natural or valveless horns played by Emily Farmer and Breton Nicholas.
The production fielded a strong cast of well-prepared singers who all contributed plenty of vocal fireworks and mastery of the Italian text. Soprano Jeanne Fischer was the effective Serse. Her voice quickly warmed up after the opening "Ombra mai fu," (the famous "Handel's Largo"), especially for the arias expressing Serse's rage or frustration. Counter-tenor Bryan Pollock as Arsamene was outstanding, dominating the stage with a magnificent, strong voice. As the main love interest of the two brothers, Romilda, soprano Louise Toppin brought plenty of stylish vocal fireworks to bear in her many arias. Her duplicitous sister, Atalanta, was brilliantly presented by soprano Kathryn Mueller. Mezzo-soprano Erica Dunkle was moving as Amastre, the wronged betrothed of Serse. Baritone Gene Galvin brought plenty of power as well as refinement to the role of Ariodate, Serse's general and father of the two sisters. Baritone John Hinson sang beautifully as Elviro, Arsamene's comic servant, culminating in his drinking aria to Bacchus.
Do not miss the repeat performance to hear some 44 arias filled with Handel's genius and rich musicality. More information can be found in the sidebar.