The Royal Theatre at Versailles, built during the reign of Louis XV, is a small, richly decorated bijoux in gold and blue with great acoustics, which provides the perfect setting for Baroque and early music. These genres constitute much of the interesting programme of operas and concerts offered at the Opéra Royal. Among these is Serse, by Handel, which was presented with a stellar cast led by countertenor Franco Fagioli.

The orchestra was  Il pomo d'oro, a period ensemble created in 2012, which has established itself as one of the most interesting in the current musical landscape. They confirmed their standing with a precise, thoughtful performance, nuanced dynamics and perfect style. Maxim Emelyanychev conducted from the harpsichord with energy and drive; his youth, evident in his boyish looks, contrasted with his obvious experience and skill.

The opera was in concert form, but it ended up being semi-staged because the singers acted the scenes and engaged with each other with warmth. The plot is strange, silly and intriguing as only Baroque operas can be. Set in the end of the 5th century AD, it tells the story of Serse, the Persian emperor, who falls in love first with a tree, then with a woman he hears singing offstage. This infatuation creates havoc among his entourage because the woman, Romilda, is betrothed to his brother Arsamene. Other characters include Atalanta, Romilda's sister, who is in love with Arsamene herself; Ariodate, father of the two sisters; Amastre, Serse's fiancée, who is not pleased by the turn of events; and a buffo character, Elvino. The inclusion of comedy in this opera seria was one of the reasons for its initial fiasco, in 1738; but, honestly, it's hard to take this opera as “seria”. The great emperor Serse behaves like a spoiled brat, with a complete lack of empathy and understanding. The other characters spend the whole opera trying to protect themselves and their loved ones from Serse's whims and unreasonable requests with schemes and lies.

Franco Fagioli was perfect as the unpredictable tyrant: he stormed on and off the stage, and he overacted his passion and his rage, bringing the silly story to life with emotional participation. His acting was particularly engaging in the aria closing the first act "Se bramate d'amar chi vi sdegna", where Serse, tired of Romilda's refusals, shouts at her that he's going to forget about her, and then he realizes he has no idea how to stop loving her. Fagioli managed to project the image of an arrogant child who stomps his feet and has no clue about his own emotions and how to handle them, all the while singing with true perfection. He truly confirmed his status as the star countertenor of his generation. His palette of vocal colours was vast, with perfect coloratura, his musicality and sense of the Baroque style astounding. He ventured into variations of the utmost difficulty and originality, but always with a great respect for the music. The standing ovation for him at the end of the opera was endless.

The rest of the cast was up to par, all Baroque specialists with a clear, brilliant coloratura. Romilda was Inga Kalna. Her soprano is quite full for Baroque music, but she handled the size of her voice with ease, and it gave depth to her character. She displayed the most tender filati, and her trills were amazing. Vivica Genoux, in the breeches role of Arsamene, showed a strong, solid technique and a mastery of the Baroque style. The colour of the voice itself was perhaps not the most beautiful, but her skills were indisputable.

Amastre, the spurned fiancée, was Delphine Galou, her deep, bronzed contralto was delicate and strong at the same time; Francesca Aspromonte was a fresh and spirited Atalanta, with a brilliant, full soprano. The role of Ariodate is an ungrateful one: he has only a couple of very short arias, but they are extremely difficult. Andrea Mastroni, with his booming, perfectly supported bass, came through with distinction. It was surprising to hear vocal agility in such a deep, dark voice. Biagio Pizzuti took the buffo role of Elvino, which was a challenge as it is always difficult to translate humour across time – what was funny in 1738 is not necessarily funny today. But Pizzuti took it in stride; he gave a credible and committed performance, supported by his beautiful voice.