Saturday, December 4, 2010

Handel's Serse

When I heard that Alan Curtis would be conducting and Paula Rasmussen would be starring in the Berkeley West Edge Opera's production of Handel's Serse (Xerxes, 1738), I was astounded. Curtis is one of the world's foremost conductors of Baroque music, and together with his period instrument orchestra Il Complesso Barocco has made more than a dozen full-length recordings of rarely-performed Handel operas such as Deidamia (1741), Tolomeo (1728), and Floridante (1721). If you're looking for a great place to acquaint yourself with both Curtis and Handel opera, I highly recommend Amor e gelosia: Handel Operatic Duets featuring the beautifully intertwined voices of Patrizia Ciofi and Joyce DiDonato.

Paula Rasmussen is Serse in the only available DVD of the Italian-language version of the opera; her conductor is Christophe Rousset with Les Talens Lyriques, and her co-stars include Sandrine Piau, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Patricia Bardon and Ann Hallenberg. Here's a clip of Rasmussen from this Dresden Semperoper production, performing Serse's exquisite opening aria "Ombra mai fu":

And yes, Serse is singing to a tree, which immediately suggests that Handel intended for the opera to have a less-than-fully-serious tone. Thanks to that unusual mixture of comic and serious elements Serse came in for some criticism in Handel's time. The printed libretto contained a note To the Reader which alerted its first audiences that the story contained "some imbicillities" [sic], though those imbecilities were largely derived from Herodotus' account of Xerxes in his Histories. And Charles Burney, in his A General History of Music (1789) wrote that the libretto "is one of the worst that Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it..." In Handel's time, serious and comic elements in opera tended to be strictly separated: an opera was either seria or buffa. Handel, however, mixed the serious and the comic in operas such as Agrippina (1709), Partenope (1730) and Serse, looking back to the 17th-century models of Monteverdi and Cavalli, and anticipating the Da Ponte and Mozart operas of the 1780s.

With a conductor and lead singer of international stature, this fall's BWEO production of Serse (seen November 21) promised to be a landmark. But as I was settling into my excellent seat—the 600-seat Performing Arts Theater at El Cerrito High School is quite intimate, an ideal venue for Baroque opera—I noticed that this three-act opera was being presented in only two parts, and that nearly an hour of music had been cut.

Worse was the program note from BWEO artistic director Mark Streshinsky, which unfortunately I had the leisure to read before the curtain rose. First he mentions his conception of Xerxes: "He has an absolutely brilliant military intellect, he is prone to outbursts, he's evidently obsessed with botany, and he has no clue as to the personal feelings or emotions of the people around him. I suddenly thought to myself: 'This guy has Aspergers's [sic] Syndrome!'" Of course this diagnosis is not only anachronistic, it's unnecessary—after all, isn't Xerxes the absolute ruler of the Persian Empire, and wouldn't that explain sufficiently his disregard for other people's feelings? But then Streshinsky continues, "Un-doctored, Handel operas are a great challenge to a director and to an audience....Cuts and, in this case, a re-configuration of Act 3 do wonders for the plot, avoiding several moments that make me think 'Huh?'"

While the conventions of early 18th-century opera may be unfamiliar to modern audiences, a heavy directorial hand can make things less rather than more comprehensible. Cutting and re-arranging Handel's work not only does violence to its musical and dramatic integrity, but the disjointed result can drag, rather than flow. As Handel scholar Winton Dean has written, "The organization is so taut, and the equilibrium between the musical, dramatic and scenic components so nicely balanced, that almost any cut weakens the design. As a result, the duration appears longer, not shorter, when cuts are made..."* And any director whose response to an opera is "Huh?" should probably think about staging a different opera. So it was with a sinking heart that I awaited the opening chords of the overture.

It quickly became clear that Streshinsky's production was going to be bright, bold (Lucas Krech's lighting design washed the stage backdrop with intense pinks, oranges and blues), modern, and broadly campy. Here's a taste of the approach: Serse's aria "Io dirò che l'amo né mi sgomentarò" (I will say that I love her); the observers are Xerxes' brother Arsamene (countertenor Ryan Belongie) and the servant Elviro (bass Don Sherrill):

(Set by Liliana Duque Piñeiro; costumes by Romy Douglass.)

Camp is the default approach to Baroque opera by directors who don't trust the musical and dramatic material to hold the audience's interest. The danger with such an approach is that as the director strives for cheap laughs he can obscure or undercut the moments of genuine feeling. But this kind of comic approach can also work—as David McVicar's Bollywood Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1724) has shown—and it did so here, pretty delightfully.

Xerxes falls in love with Romilda, the brightly soubrettish and very game Angela Cadelago. Romilda, though, already has a secret lover: Arsamene. Here is Cadelago singing Romilda's aria "Nemmen con l'ombre d'infedeltà" (No shadow of unfaithfulness):

The burly Elviro garbs himself in highly unconvincing drag in order to convey a clandestine love-note from Arsamene to Romilda; but the message gets intercepted by Romilda's gawky, lovelorn kid sister Atalanta (the wonderful Anna Slate), who uses it to try to snag Arsamene for herself:

Meanwhile, Xerxes' dumped fiancée Amastre (rich-voiced contralto Sonia Gariaeff) shows up in male drag (all the cross-dressing is in the original, by the way) to keep an eye on Xerxes. Many love complications ensue before all the proper couples are sorted out in the end.

Musically, the evening was a bit mixed. The singers were generally excellent, especially the four principal women (Rasmussen, Cadelago, Gariaeff and the wide-eyed Slate, who practically stole the show when she emerged from under the heaving bed on which Romilda was trysting with Arsamene). Under Curtis' direction the instrumentalists (some of whom were moonlighting from well-known Bay Area Baroque ensembles) gave a strong account of Handel's great score. Highlights included Rasmussen's glorious "Ombra mai fu," her duet with Gariaeff, "Gran pena e gelosia," and Gariaeff's mournful solo aria "Cagion son io del mio dolore". Mention should also be made of Gilbert Martinez's fluent and amusing harpsichord continuo playing: at one point an all-too-familiar arpeggio indicated the ringing of a character's cell phone.

But the cuts to Handel's music were quite extensive. Some arias were cut entirely, and others lost their B sections and/or da capo repeats. Cutting the repeats of da capo arias not only makes them shorter, but less meaningful. In a da capo aria the first section expresses an emotion, and then the second section a contrasting emotion. When the music of the first section is repeated, we return as well to the first emotion, only this time it's inflected with the second emotion. Cut the second part and the repeat of the first part, and those nuances disappear (and the characters' emotional responses get flatter and less complex). However, given that Streshinky's production was aiming more at comedy than pathos, the cuts weren't as damaging as they might have been in an opera like Alcina or Ariodante.

The success of this production suggests that the Berkeley West Edge Opera might want to look at some other ironic or comic Baroque operas, such as Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), Cavalli's La Calisto (1651), or Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1728). I think they'd have a chance of being as crowd-pleasing as this winning, clever and highly enjoyable production of Serse.

* Winton Dean, "Production style in Handel operas," in The Cambridge Companion to Handel, Donald Burrows, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 253.

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