Handel’s Serse, one of his three last operas qua opera, premiered in 1734 in London to some bemusement on the part of his audience. While in the tradition of opera seria, it also contains buffo elements, leading the Earl of Shaftesbury to refer to is as a “ballad opera” and musicologist Charles Burney to fulminate about its “mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery” (1789).

Franco Fagioli (Serse) © Falk von Traubenberg
Franco Fagioli (Serse)
© Falk von Traubenberg

This new production at the 2019 Karlsruhe International Handel Festival has chosen to emphasise the comic aspects to an extent which might be thought excessive, although it must also be said that the audience loved it. Surtitled The Serse Show, and having been forewarned to “think Vegas”, the curtain rose with the start of the overture on a sparkly background with a piano keyboard arch (don’t expect historic relevance here) rising above a scene with chorus girls in shiny brief and swishy silver costumes, with nightclub patrons in booths to one side, and a dressing room on the other, with a man and woman depicting a variety of intimate interactions. Behind the chorines, we see a grand piano with a candelabra, and, after the overture, we have a “Here’s Serse” moment, and Franco Fagioli appears in full blue glitter accoutrements, recalling Liberace, late Elvis and, occasionally, Bela Lugosi.

It would be otiose to describe much more of this. There are elaborate scene changes, from nightclub to urban reddish light district to swimming pool and cabana set up, with a final wedding chapel simulation. Apart from the latter, it is all colourful, lively and vulgar beyond belief. The problem with on-stage vulgarity is that, while it might be sophisticated and knowing satire, it ends by being what it is parodying and undermining any more serious intent. There is also the problem, in this particular production, that the title role is sung by Franco Fagioli, who brings his own vocal mannerisms to bear, and it is not always clear whether some perceived infelicities are due to this or to directorial decisions, the director being another countertenor, Max Emanuel Cenčić, who also features as Arsemene.

Franco Fagioli (Serse) © Falk von Traubenberg
Franco Fagioli (Serse)
© Falk von Traubenberg

“Ombra mai fu” is sung by Fagioli at the piano (it appeared that he was playing it himself), in lounge lizard style with a gurgling vibrato and exaggerated arpeggios on the piano which of course undermined the intent of the original, a love song to a tree. The purpose of the arietta, in depicting a foolish young man in serious adulation of a plant, is to make us smile at his seriousness, as well as appreciate the beauty of the song. Neither applied here. The audience was ecstatic. And so on through the opera. There was no character development, since each aria was treated the same, and Serse was portrayed as a louche buffoon until the end, when he just seemed demented.

The other singers fared better in terms of character and vocalising. Cenčić certainly didn’t spare himself in the costume area, with one of the worst wigs ever seen on a stage, and clothes which would have looked bad even in the 1970s. His voice however was its usual creamy self with power to spare. Romilda was sung by Lauren Snouffer in a welcome return from 2017’s Arminio, and her portrayal and beautiful singing, with rich but accurate tone and crystal high notes, certainly explained her attraction for the brothers. The other soprano, Katherine Manley, with a lighter but equally attractive voice, portrayed a somewhat dowdy and awkward but determined Atalanta, who finished her end of Act 1 aria by leading those on stage in an energetic conga line.

Yang Xu (Elviro), Max Emanuel Cencic (Arsamene) and Franco Fagioli (Serse) © Falk von Traubenberg
Yang Xu (Elviro), Max Emanuel Cencic (Arsamene) and Franco Fagioli (Serse)
© Falk von Traubenberg

Amastre’s relationship to Serse is usually somewhat baffling (there is a whole class of characters who never seem to have met their fiancé before, cf. Irene in Tamerlano), but is here a model of clarity: she was the woman with whom he was romping during the overture. Rather than disguising herself as a man, here she adopts a multiplicity of roles, male-ish and female, including a humble cleaner. Newcomer Ariana Lucas was a delight in the part, with a well-formed mezzo voice of considerable range and evenly produced across that range. The two bass roles were also well cast, with Yang Xu an energetic Elviro, and persuasive in full drag while selling “flowers”, here code for drugs. Pavel Kudinov was a resonant and convincing Ariodate.

It goes without saying that this is not one for the purists. They could however close their eyes and revel in the excellent orchestral playing under George Petrou and the singing, apart from the title role. But the night was a great success from the audience point of view, who rewarded the production, which in truth provides a lot of fun, with a not quite unanimous standing ovation.

***11