First performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, in 1738, Handel’s opera Serse (Xerxes) was a flop. It received just five performances before closing, and it was not revived until 1924. All of which is hard to believe now.
Yet if its modern-day popularity rests largely on Serse’s famous opening aria Ombra mai fu, in which the Achaemenian king declares his passion for the plane tree that shades him, even here surprises await the listener who has not delved as closely into the history of the work as Handel scholar and author of this magnificent new recording’s booklet essay, David Vickers. For Handel based this aria, and some other parts of the opera, on an earlier version by Giovanni Bononcini, whose setting of Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto was first performed in Rome in 1694, and which Handel plundered for, according to Vickers, “at least ten different works”.
Nothing new here. Borrowings and elaborations of pre-existing texts and music by other artists was common practice.
Then there’s the myth of the originality of the genius. It’s just that: a myth. “Good artists copy, great artists steal,” said Picasso. Anyway, the interpreter’s role as re-creative artist can never be controversial, unless of course they take liberties which may be, depending on the taste of the day, considered against the purported wishes of the composer or simply an offence against decorum.
No such danger here, with this new recording by the always-exciting Il Pomo D’Oro, together with choir Cantica Symphonia and a stellar lineup of soloists, under the direction of young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, delivering on all fronts.
The story’s a complicated, silly one, involving overlapping love triangles, misunderstandings, cross-dressing and the comic antics of the obligatory drunken servant. But superb countertenor Franco Fagioli somehow manages simultaneously to portray Serse’s dignity and ridiculousness with that honeyed, infinitely flexible voice of his.
Impressive, too, are Vivica Genaux as his brother Arsamene, Delphine Galou as the king’s intended but disguised as a man (see, told you) and Inga Kalna as the woman Serse really loves, Romilda – who is in love with Arsamene.
Performing on period instruments, Il Pomo D’Oro play with the crispness and juiciness of a real apple as Emelyanychev anchors these terrific solo performances with a clear beat and perfect orchestral balance. The hilarious additional booklet essay by novelist Donna Leon is a bonus.
Performer: Franco Fagioli ct, Il Pomo D’Oro/Maxim Emelyanychev
Catalogue Number: Deutsche Grammophon DG4835784 (3CD)