There is a 'complete' version under Brian Priestman, let me start by saying. It had Maureen Forrester in the title role, Lucia Popp as the primo diva Romilda. That recording is virtually the 'complete' version,and is very good, especially Lucia Popp's Romilda. That said, in the title role as Serse, Paula Rasmussen is a force of nature that no one could ignore, even till now in 2012. Her first recording of this role was under Bryden in 1998, with Elisabeth Futral as Romilda and Brian Asawa as Arsamene. I have never had the chance to hear that, which is not internationally available am afraid. This recording in DVD was made in Semper Oper in Dresden, in the June Dresden Opera Festival. The cast is simply a dreamt one. Not only did Rasmussen shone in the title role; the supporting roles are of commensurate strength and very even. As Serse's betrothed Amastre, contralto Patricia Bardon has the right timbre and looks, and her pathos as the jilted fiancee is very well acted out vocally as well as dramatically. In the role of the unsuccessful lover Atalanta, Sandrine Piau is vocally superb and dramatically fascinating. The jealous and playful sister of Romilda, Piau brought just the right dose to the character, singing in a burnished tone with flying coloraturas to boot. Serse's disturbed and unfortunate brother Arsamene is very effectively portrayed by Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg, a Handel expert of the first rank. Her coloratura is dazzling; her timbre is sweet and elegant with an icy hue. In this performance, she also looked the part of a Persian prince and gave a performance so convincing that you wonder why she is not a super star in the operatic world!Read more ›
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63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
It Simply Doesn't Get Any Better Than This!Nov. 24 2005
J Scott Morrison
- Published on Amazon.com
In the past, to the degree that Handel's 'Serse' ('Xerxes') remained in the memory of the general music-lover, it was for its opening aria, 'Ombra mai fu' (often simply called 'Handel's Largo' or 'The Largo from Xerxes') that it is remembered. But since the re-examination of Handel's operas of the last thirty years or so, the opera has become very popular, second only to 'Julius Caesar' in its number of mountings. And this one at the Semper Opera from the 2000 Dresden Music Festival is simply stunningly done. It is under the musical direction of Christophe Rousset, leading his 'Les Talens Lyriques' who together have received nothing but plaudits for their presentations of baroque opera. The orchestral playing is simply superb. And the cast! There is not single weak member among the seven principals. Rousset made the decision to have King Xerxes sung by a coloratura mezzo-soprano, the American Paula Rasmussen; the role had originally been written for and sung by the castrato Caffarelli. The two daughters of Xerxes's commanding general, Romilda and Atalanta, are sung by two of the leading young sopranos of our day, respectively Isabel Bayrakdarian and Sandrine Piau. Amastre, a young woman who had been previously jilted by Xerxes and now posing as a young man (don't ask!), is sung fervently by the Irish contralto Patricia Bardon. Xerxe's brother Arsamene, and his contender for the hand of Romilda, is sung by Swedish mezzo Ann Hallenberg. (One is easily able to believe both Rasmussen and Hallenberg as male.) The only two male voices in the cast are Marcello Lippi as Ariodate, the general, and Matteo Peirone, as Arsamene's servant (and the primary comic character), Elviro.
The sets and costumes by Carlo Tommasi are gorgeous. The setting is done all in whites, blacks and grays, with occasional splashes of other muted colors. The superstructure for the first act (and for the finale) is an arrangement of huge metal-framed sliding glass panels - very striking - behind which can be seen a fantastic stylized plane tree - the object of Serse's opening love aria; possibly the only instance of a love song sung to a tree in all of opera. Stage business by Michael Hampe is uniformly interesting and often laugh-out-loud funny. He has made Xerxes's palace guard comic figures whose pomp is played for laughs.
Handel's score, for those of you who don't know it, is characterized by one gorgeous melody after another. Was there any other baroque opera composer whose melodies are so immediately memorable? Aside from 'Ombra mai fu,' (sung absolutely straight and all the funnier for it by Rasmussen) are Xerxes's fury arias 'Di tacere e di schernirmi' from Act I and 'Crude Furie degl'orridi abissi' in III as well as his duet with Amastre in II, 'Gran pena è gelosia.' Romilda, sung deliciously by Bayrakdarian, gets one of the greatest arias in her angry, comic 'Se l'idol mio rapir mi vuoi' from Act II. Sandrine Piau, one of the current queens (with good reason) of baroque opera, has a hilarious scena ('Un cenno leggiadretto') immediately following Romilda's just-mentioned aria in which she sings extraordinarily complicated (and spot-on) coloratura while getting dressed sexily before going out to vamp the king. I didn't know whether to laugh or applaud; I did both. (It doesn't hurt that Piau is a stunningly beautiful woman, as is Bayrakdarian.)
I had never seen a DVD of an opera Rousset had conducted before. Now I see what all the fuss has been about. He keeps things moving, is extraordinarily in synch with his singers, and gets pointed and glowingly lovely playing from his instrumentalists. From CDs I already knew he was a terrific harpsichordist (and he plays the continuo here).
I must say that seeing this DVD has done several things for me: it has made me a fan of several singers new to me, it has convinced me that Rousset is the real thing, and best of all it has made me watch a Handel opera straight through on DVD, something I'd never done before. I was transfixed throughout its entire 160 minutes.
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM Stereo; Picture format: 4:3 NTSC; Subtitles: English, German, French, Italian, Spanish; Region code: 0 (DVD9); No bonus tracks
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Great Reason for Looking into Handel's Italian OperasJuly 2 2006
Brian J Hay
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The plot (?) of this piece basically has everybody loving somebody doesn't love them except for one couple who love each other in secret. They fend off advances from another man who loves the secretly loved sister while the jealous and manipulative (but not really bad) sister does her best to split them up; she wants the man her sister is with. There's more but it's even more confusing.
Don't worry about it. This is a great production. The music is great, the staging is great and the singers are great.
It's impossible to pick the best singer from this ensemble. Isabel Bayrakdarian has a great voice, excellent technique and her performances are always tasteful. She gets to sing "Né men combe l'endre", one of the loveliest arias in the entire opera. Anyone who's not moved by her rendition of this piece is probably already dead. Paula Rasmussen's voice has the lightest tonal shadings of the three mezzo-sopranos in the cast. Her voice is smooth, well controlled and mostly free of vibrato. Anne Hallenberg has a deeper pitch and sings with bell-like tones that resonate through the air. There's a considerable amount of vibrato in her voice but she controls it well. Patricia Bardon has a voice that's powerful and exceptionally deep. And she uses those shadings to convey emotion well. She is one of the standouts of the cast.
The two men in the cast are both bass baritones. Marcello Lippi's voice is deep and commanding but multi-faceted as well. He uses it to convey the thoughtful nature of a philosopher the warmth of a parent and the authority of a commander with equal aplomb. Matteo Peirone has a higher voice and silkier tones but plenty of range and volume. He provides most of the comic relief and he does it well.
Picking the best singer may be impossible but Sandrine Piau is clearly the best actress. It's not because any of the other cast members are weak. They're not. She's just that good. She's physically expressive enough to define her character clearly without dialogue or music. Her timing is fabulous and she plays the role with the glee kittens have when they find a new ball of wool. And her singing is as good as her acting. Her technique is breathtaking. She never sounds strained or shrill even in the most difficult passages. The music Handel wrote for the part of "Atalanta" is extremely demanding but Piau navigates the toughest passages with ease. She's a joy to watch and listen to.
There are plenty of highlights. Anne Hallenberg's rendition of "Non so,se sia la sperme" is fabulous. The duet between her and (Paula) Rasmussen, "Io le diró che l'amo"/ "Tu le dirai che l'ami" is delivered brilliantly. Rasmussen's performance of "Ombra mai fu" is easily on par with the recent version released by Renée Fleming. Patricia Bardon rends the heart strings with her interpretation of "Cagion son io mio dolore" and Sandrine Piau shows how to handle vocal acrobatics the right way when she sings "Dirá, che amor per me". The Sinfonia that opens the third act is three and a half minutes of pure enchantment. The list goes on ...
Christophe Rousset has emerged as a brilliant conductor. It shouldn't be a surprise though. His experience with this repertoire and his credentials as a harpsichordist make him a natural to take this step. His tempo is flexible but nothing ever seems rushed or slow. The balance he maintains between the singers and the orchestra is excellent and he knows when to pull back or add some force. Best of all, he's only going to get better.
The staging is set somewhere between the era of British Imperialism and what looks like a Puccini take on modern day Persia. The sets are extravagant, often bordering on garish but they never overpower the action. Most are glass (probably Plexiglass for safety reasons) or tile in a framework that's meant to look as if it's made of Stainless Steel. The tree set in the midst of most of them sits in a display case of similar design and material. They're colourful and loud but they provide an air of splendour that would be expected in the court of a Monarch. The sound is also good. It's not quite on par with the audio found on many concert DVD releases but it's clear and vibrant. And it's not burdened with the endless line of delay (artificial ambience that sounds as legitimate as a three dollar bill feels) that's finding its way to host of releases these days either. The menus are easy to navigate, the only quirk being that the subtitles have to be activated manually.
There are a few things that make suspension of belief difficult. Sandrine Piau and Isabel Bayrakdarian are never going to convince anybody they're from the same bloodline let alone the same parents. Patricia Bardon doesn't even begin to look like a man. This may be intentional (given the fact that Paula Rasmussen and Anne Hallenberg are entirely convincing) but she still should have to come across as "masculine enough" to fool the other cast members. She doesn't. She has too many voluptuously sexy curves that stand out like, well, voluptuously sexy curves. Last (but far from least), the "instant resolution" (so typical of Grand Opera once the Librettist and Composer run out of time and music) for the two and a half hours of muddled lust set to song strains credibility as much as the idea of Bayrakdarian and Piau being sisters.
But it opens the door for Isabel Bayrakdarian to sing a great piece of music to close the show with so all is forgiven. And it really is forgiven. The absurdities aside, this is a wonderfully entertaining performance. The story is silly. But the performances are engaging and the music is beautiful. It's great entertainment.
That's what really counts.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
As Flimsy as a Shakespeare Comedy...June 5 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
... but all the wit goes into the music rather than the word play. Shakespeare and the sundry Italian librettists who wrote for Handel had the same roots in Italian Renaissance farces and commedia dell'arte. With the subtitles on the DVD, you'll suffer only moderate confusion, trying to keep the twists of the story straight, but it doesn't matter. Any sprightly acting or artful stagecraft is way secondary to the flow of glorious music, including some of Handel's finest arias and duets. In fact, the very first arioso by Serse is the famous "ombra mai fu", which you will find sung by everybody and her brother on YouTube, an excursion I heartily recommend.
In this performance, the role of Serse is sung superbly by soprano Paula Rasmussen, and her "ombra mai fu" is the most affectively perfect I've ever heard. Her acting in male drag is nearly as impressive; she's as narcissistic and willful a tyrant as the role requires. Arsamene, the tyrant's brother and rival in love, is a role of comical frustration and impotence, sung and acted ripely by Ann Hallenberg. The woman both brothers love is Romilda, sung richly by Isabel Bayrakdarian, but Imilda has a 'kid' sister, Atalanta, who is set on stealing Arsamene from her sister. Sandrine Piau, as Atalanta, fails to steal a lover but steals the show, acting with coy capricious vivacity and singing at a level few sopranos have ever reached. The smaller role of Amastre, sung by Patricia Bardon, is curious; Amastre is a woman, the rejected fiancée of Serse, disguised until the final scene as a man. All of these roles were presumably sung, in the opera's opening in London in 1738, by imported 'castrati' from Italy. In terms of audience, Serse was a dud at the time, and for Handel its failure to earn money put an end to his efforts at promoting opera in England. The opera was first revived in Germany in 1924, and it has been staged more often than any other Handel opera except Giulio Cesare. It's the treasure vein of music that has drawn such attention, but the various attempts to produce it have run into a constant problem: the five principal roles MUST be sung in their original high ranges! Transposition to tenor or bass simply doesn't work musically.
Of the leading countertenors singing opera today, only Philippe Jaroussky could plausibly sing the agitated coloratura required in the arias of Serse. Conductor Cristophe Rousset has chosen the only musical solution by casting women in all five roles, a decision made possible today by the development of "historical" vocal technique. Five more 'convincing' and beautiful voices than Rasmussen, Hallenberg, Piau, Bayrakdarian, and Bardon have never shared a stage, I'd wager, not in the 18th or the 20th/21st Centuries! In terms of sheer vocal artistry, this Serse is arguably the best performance of an 18th C opera on DVD. Don't let the quibbles of previous reviewers deter you; this is a MUST hear&see production.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Excellent Version of XerxesSept. 24 2007
- Published on Amazon.com
I have to agree with the other reviews, this was an interesting, well-crafted version of a fine Handel opera. One negative in this production is the feel of the set and costumes--very dark and cold. Perhaps this is a deliberate contrast to the warmth and passion of the music? For me it didn't work. However, the singing and acting overcame the stale, morbidity of the set. Another small negative is that Romilda, played by Isabel Bayrakdarian was, at times, a bit shaky in her voice and not completely convincing with her character. This is a small complaint considering Bayrakdarian did well enough and the rest of the cast is extraordinary, as other reviewers have noted. I found the overall production impressive. Would highly recommend it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
SuperbJuly 13 2009
- Published on Amazon.com
I love Baroque opera, and Handel in particular, but I've been burned by trashy modern productions--I have a DVD of Alcina that I can't watch--so I was hesitant to buy this--but I'm glad I did. It isn't period, or modern, exactly: it's set in a kind of neverland where the costumes don't matter, and there's no big political message here, thank goodness (don't get me started on my DVD of Theodora that's an allegory about Richard Nixon).
Here it's just glorious music and singing, and if the plot is too complicated to bother trying to follow, it doesn't matter, because it's all about Handel and about wonderful voices. Everyone is terrific. Very highly recommended.