Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St John’s, Smith Square. 18 November 2016
Serse was the first opera that the newly formed Early Opera Company performed, some 22 years ago. A well-received recording was released in 2013*, and they returned to it for their latest appearance at St John’s, Smith Square, an ideal space for baroque music. Serse is one of Handel’s more curious operas. Written in 1738 towards the end of his opera-writing career, its innovative compositional style was rather lost on the audience, as was the libretto, with Charles Burney referring to the latter as “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music”. He identified the issue as being that the work contained “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery”, which is exactly what Handel intended. Other commentators noted Handel’s use of many short arias, without the usual convention of the da capo, linking it to the musical style of the many ‘ballad-operas’ that had become the rage. It only managed five performances, but after its modern resurrection has become one of Handel’s best known operas.
The first of the short arias is the opening Ombra mai fù, which became one of Handel’s most famous pieces, albeit under the incorrect name of Handel’s Largo (it is marked Larghetto). I wonder how many people outside the opera-loving world realise that this aria is sung by a clearly dotty King to a tree that he has taken a fancy to? Serse’s dottiness continues throughout the opera, to the bemusement of the other characters. In this concert performance, the only prop was a folded piece of paper (representing various letters) that was passed from side to side, via conductor Christian Curnyn. Although there was no specific ‘acting’ the singers reacted visibly to the text and the interaction between the characters, only rarely slipping up by not singing to the right person, or singing intimately to someone who had just gone to sit down.
One of the joys of concert performances of operas is that you do not have to suffer the intervention of weird flights of fancy from directors, who so often seem to think that the music and text, combined with simple acting is enough. Performances like this draw the listener into the music and the portrayal of the character through the voice, rather than superfluous antics. On this occasion, the effect was the stronger because of the excellent playing of the Early Opera Company orchestra and the inspired direction of Christian Curnyn (pictured), bringing a sensitive, unfussy, and unrushed maturity to his conducting. He is a conductor I have always admired. His focus always seems to be on the music and the musicians, rather than on self-promotion or the imposing of extraneous ideas on the music.
Although not the same cast as the 2012 recording, this was an outstanding line-up of youngish singers that have already made an impression in the world of opera; with Anna Stéphany as Serse, Rupert Enticknap as Arsamene, Rachael Lloyd as Amastre, Claire Booth as Romilda, Keri Fuge as Atalanta, Callum Thorpe as Ariodate, and Edward Grint as Elviro. Anna Stéphany (the only one also on the CD) helped to portray the trouser role of Serse by actually wearing trousers, into whose pockets she thrust her hands. Although they can have had little time to put together any sort of character interaction, the subtle interchanges between them was well done, as was their individual visual responses to the text and situation. I will avoid the temptation to pick out any individuals for particular praise, but will generally praise their use of ornaments, sensible cadenzas, clear enunciation and effective use of appropriate ornaments. It was announced before the start that one of them was singing despite having a chest infection, although I did not notice any reduction in singing ability or stamina.
The audience were given 30 page A4 texts and translations with their programmes, including the scene directions. Most seemed to give up trying to follow the translations, or made noisy heavy weather of turning the pages. Although it is useful to me to have something to make notes on, I much prefer surtitles – or, indeed, subtitles, ideally positioned just below the singers and therefore readable without taking your eye off the singers. Most opera houses have surtitles above the top of the proscenium arch, meaning that you have to choose between watching the text, or the singers.
*Chandos Chaconne 2013, Anna Stephany, Rosemary Joshua, David Daniels, Hilary Summers, Joelle Harvey, Brindley Sherratt, Andreas Wolf. Early Opera Company, directed by Christian Curnyn. CHAN 0797