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

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 NicolÚ 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 f˘’, 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

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 fÈ’ and the impassioned hurt of ‘SÏ, 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
‘Sapr‡ 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

Barbican Hall, London; Friday 26th October 2018.

product_title=Serse, Il Pomo d’Oro, Barbican Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Franco Fagioli