Handel: Serse

Handel: Serse
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 Continue reading

Iford Arts: Agrippina

Although perhaps not quite reaching the social cachet of Glyndebourne or Garsington, the opera season at Iford Manor is always a delight, both for the setting and the standard of the music. A few miles south-east of Bath, the manor house is surrounded by the famous Peto garden, with an Italian cloister that is turned into a delightfully intimate opera house for the season. Unlike their companion’s ‘posh frocks and picnic’ focussed events, the dress code is ‘smart casual’ and picnicking opportunities come before, rather than during the opera, with a welcome coffee and biscuits filling the 20 minute interval. All this encourages a welcome focus on the music, rather than the surrounding social razzmatazz.

WP_20150801_18_17_59_ProThis year’s early music opera was Handel’s wonderful Agrippina, one of his most approachable operas despite, or perhaps because of, having been written when Handel was around 24, at the end of his enormously productive three years in Italy. This period produced some of his finest music, as reflected in the fact that Agrippina borrows extensively from Handel’s previous works – and, in turn, many extracts were later borrowed for later works. Continue reading