The adventurous humour that coarses through Handel’s opera Serse was to prove its downfall when it premiered in 1738: it was so far ahead of its time that it baffled London audiences. No such danger in 2018 – particularly when Il pomo d'oro and a cast of outstanding singers comes fizzing into town. Their inspirational conductor, Maxim Emelyanychev, is a man on springs: he directs from the keyboard with almost manic intensity, alert to every rhythmic nuance in the score, urging his players on like a coachman driving a team of mane-tossing thoroughbreds. The results are truly exciting; the strings and continuo crisp and percussive as a snare-drum, the woodwind mellifluous, jaunty and precise.

Maxim Emelyanychev © Jean-Baptiste Millot
Maxim Emelyanychev
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Emelyanychev’s edgy Handel feels in the same region as Teodor Currentzis’ exciting re-imaginings of Mozart, which is appropriate here. Serse is often seen to prefigure the Da Ponte operas, with its Leporello-like servant, Elviro and two lovesick sisters, a la Così. And Serse himself is as hopelessly vain and self-regarding as the Count in Figaro, only he is also dangerous, a king given to handing out death sentences to those who cross him.

Stepping into the title role at the Barbican was the star countertenor Franco Fagioli. Even in a concert performance, he completely inhabits the part, sportingly alert to its absurdities and to Handel’s tongue-in-cheek writing, quietly sending up opera seria of the day. He flounces, he preens, he purrs, he prowls. And whatever you may feel about the feminine vibrato in the voice (so different to the clean edges of Iestyn Davies, say, or Andreas Scholl) you cannot but admire the extraordinary facility and artistry of this singer, who decorates and embellishes with astonishing ease and supreme musicality.

Franco Fagioli © Stephan Boehme | DG
Franco Fagioli
© Stephan Boehme | DG

The deluded Serse, betrothed to an Egyptian princess, Amastre, has fallen for another, Romilda, who loves his brother, Arsamene. Much confusion – and laughter – ensues, with Arsamene’s lumpen servant Elviro stirring it up further, misdirecting love letters and adopting a hopeless disguise.

Soprano Inga Kalna, as Romilda, was vocally more than a match for Fagioli’s Serse, gloriously supple in her upper register and with a beautifully judged sense of line and shape. She was also not above a bit of fun, playfully battling trills and decorations with the king to assert her disdain for his advances. 

Mezzo Vivica Genaux was the put-upon Arsemene, a trouser role that requires both bathos and spectacular anger, particularly in the aria “Si, la voglio”. Genaux hurled herself at this blizzard of semiquavers to breathtaking effect, with the orchestra really digging in behind her. 

This was never going to be a staid, stand-and-sing concert performance, and so we saw Elviro, the splendid bass Biagio Pizzuti, disguised as a flower-seller, trading dahliahs with the principal viola, Guilio D’Alessio, and Romilda’s flirtatious sister, Atalanta (the delightfully creamy soprano Francesca Aspromonte), kissing the orchestra’s leader, Evgeny Sviridov, after they improvised hilarious mini cadenzas together.

Contralto Delphine Galou was resolute as Amastre, who appears disguised as a soldier to steer Serse away from his obsession with Romilda, with steely bass-baritone Andreas Wolf suitably bone-headed as the faithful warrior Ariodate. And a special word for theorbo player Daniel Zapico, who underpinned the pungent rhythms with such tangy zest.

This triumphant performance will surely make Il pomo d’oro’s next Barbican appearance – Handel’s Agrippina with Joyce DiDonato in May – a red-hot ticket.

*****