Composer: George Friderick Handel
Conductor: Frederick Waxman
Figure’s new semi-staging of Handel’s Serse plays for one performance only at Opera Holland Park. It’s an vibrant, thoroughly entertaining production, thanks to Figure’s founder, young conductor, Frederick Waxman. He assembles a superb ensemble of singers, actors and orchestral players and offers an intelligent and intimate re-examination of Handel’s opera. In stripping out excessive plot lines, Waxman points up the comic aspects which so shocked its first English audiences in 1738, but he never loses touch with the opera’s lyricism.
Figure aims to represent the rising generation of historical musicians and it is this freshness which makes for a stand-out production. Soprano Sarah Tynan plays Romilda, the young woman whose beautiful singing enchants King Serse at the start of the opera. The staging – Tynan’s expressive voice floating in the air from a distant hiding place – emphasises the magical quality of the human voice. Like Orsino in Twelfth Night, Serse finds music to be the food of love. Beautifully sung by mezzo soprano Cecelia Hall, Serse has already shown himself to be a man of sensibility, his famous opening aria, ‘Ombra mai fu’ (‘never was a shade dearer of more lovely’), extolling the consolations of his favourite plane tree. But like Orsino, he is more in love with the idea of love than the woman herself. For the unknown beloved Romilda is already in love with Serse’s brother, Arsamene, and Serse’s determined pursuit of her brings nothing but anguish.
Serse’s self-delusion is comically underlined by the presence of a team of versatile young actors literally dancing attendance on him. Imaginatively directed by Sam Rayner, they leap-frog and somersault around the king, grooming him to meet Romilda, or freezing into comic tableaux. They juggle goblets or form human pyramids. Later in the story, they create a lovely physical riff on the destruction of one of the pontoon bridges for which the historical Xerxes was famed. At times, however, there is a danger of the group’s endless busy-ness destablising the delicate balance between music and spectacle. It is a relief, therefore, towards the end of the opera when the mood darkens, and the actors responsively tone down their movements.
The supporting singers are all effective and clearly individualised. James Laing’s strong countertenor makes him a likeable Arsamene and Timothy Nelson has great fun as Elviro, Arsamene’s hapless servant, who at one stage is disguised as a sort of pantomime flower-seller. Later Nelson reappears as the elderly Ariodate, who inadvertently resolves the plot by misunderstanding Serse’s instructions and unites Romilda and Arsamene in marriage. Soprano Anna Cavaliero is terrific as Romilda’s spiteful sister, Atalanta, happy to create all sorts of mischief in order to steal Arsamene for herself. She shows herself to have an impressive vocal range as well as excellent comic timing.
But the other stars of the show are the orchestral players. It’s a small band of performers of period instruments, mainly strings, harpsicord and wind, who together produce a rich, vibrant sound. The two theorbos give an especial plangency to the music – we never lose sight of the depth of emotion Handel explores. Sergio Bucheli and Jonatan Bougt give wonderful performances, Bucheli, in particular, playing with thrilling verve, especially towards the end when he creates powerful dramatic effects by forcefully striking and strumming his instrument.
Waxman conducts with warmth and energy, always attentive to change of pace and dynamics. There’s a lovely moment when he responds to Atalanta who suddenly directs her flirtatious energy directly towards him. He’s a young conductor of note who is aleady making a name for himself.
Reviewed on 30 June 2022