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