In what has become an annual ritual, Harry Bicket and the outstanding English Concert returned to Carnegie Hall after a pandemic-induced hiatus for a Sunday afternoon presentation of another Handel opus: Serse.

Harry Bicket and The English Concert in Carnegie Hall
© Richard Termine

The 1738 premiere of this late opera was not a success. Handel’s contemporaries were dismayed by his mixing opera buffa and opera seria and by his toying with the rigid form of da capo arias. (A good example would be Act 2's three short, consecutive arias in minor keys that help swing the mood from comic to tragic). Paradoxically, exactly these characteristics – the composer looking back to the traditions of 17th-century Italian opera and its Commedia dell’arte roots – are those foreshadowing Mozart’s operatic oeuvre and make this work more palatable for modern sensibilities. Of course, one still has to put up with the more than convoluted plot involving multiple intersecting love pursuits, several letter-induced misunderstandings and little deus ex machina situations.

Emily D'Angelo and The English Concert
© Richard Termine

The opera’s main roles were divided here between five female voices, wonderfully complementing each other. In the title role of the Persian king Serse, the young Canadian mezzo Emily D’Angelo, demonstrated – from the melancholy-imbued “Ombra mai fu” to the full-of-sparkle “Crude furie” – not only a remarkable technical prowess, but also an outstanding musicality. She might have underlined more the character’s absurd behaviour, his frequent mood swings, but her perception of Serse will certainly deepen in time. Soprano Lucy Crowe, a great Handel interpreter, took the role of Romilda, Serse’s obsessive love quest. Her performance was exquisite, with clean attack, skilled articulation and beautifully shaped phrasing. The few strident sounds, in her upper register, could be easily attributed to natural impulsiveness. Sung with tremendous intensity, her second act aria, “E' gelosia quella tiranna”, was one of the performance’s highlights. 

Lucy Crowe and The English Concert
© Richard Termine

Pursued by Serse, Romilda is romantically involved with Arsamene, his brother, who reciprocates her love. Handel conceived the role for a woman, providing several arias with fewer embellishments for the caring and less sophisticated character traversing moments of torment. Mezzo Paula Murrihy sang them with great assuredness while her duet with Crowe, “Troppo oltraggi la mia fede”, was very well balanced. In the opera’s pentagon of love relations, Romilda’s sister, the frivolous and scheming Atalanta is also infatuated with Arsamene. Dispatching with ease the rapid-fire coloratura of her lovely arias, soprano Mary Bevan also proved, time and again, her acting mettle. The third mezzo in this performance, Daniela Mack, sang with a deep, well-calibrated amber voice the arias of Amastre, the princess supposed to marry Serse and spending her stage time disguised as a soldier before the out-of-the-blue happy ending. In the two secondary male roles, the reliable bass-baritone Neal Davies was Ariodate, Romilda and Atalanta’s father, while baritone William Dazeley filled with poise the comic role of Amastre’s servant Elviro.

Harry Bicket conducted with fine-grained dynamics and careful attention to detail a score full of charm and inventiveness. Alternatively robust and delicate, the small orchestra’s sound marvellously expanded and contracted in synchronicity with the voices.

Mary Bevan and William Dazeley
© Richard Termine

To the public's delight, what was billed as just a concert performance was not quite so. The unattributed staged elements included context-related costume accessories, such as Serse’s rather military boots, Elviro’s red vest, Amastre “hiding” sunglasses. Not only were stage entrances from the side doors coordinated, but Romilda surprisingly first emerged from a chair in the viola section and Elviro traversed the Hall’s entire Parterre as a disguised gardener with a colourful bouquet of flowers. There were physical interactions between the two quarrelling sisters and meaningful glances thrown by the always coquettish Atalanta to musicians or even front-row sitting spectators. At one point, an “exasperated” conductor raised from his keyboard chair to deliver one of those mischievous letters to a protagonist.

Serse has never been staged at the Metropolitan Opera. With its fabulous music and potential to be a showcase for both great voices and directorial inventiveness, it could prove a great success there.