Handel’s Serse of 1738 with its buffo elements and fast moving structure baffled the critics of the day who singularly failed to recognise Handel’s dramaturgical innovations; it was dismissed by some as a mere “ballad”opera and Charles Burney took him to task for reinstating the tragicomedic that had been banished from opera seria. Relying less on the static three-part da capo aria in favour of short snappy one-movement numbers it suits the light, nimble touch of Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company whose excellence in this field is a known quantity and the cast is ideal.
Anna Stéphany is superb in the title pants-role, caressing the ear in moments of contemplation yet with sufficient metal in the voice to suggest the warrior king without going over the top and turning the character into a basket-case – her Se Bramante d’amar is a lesson in dramatic projection. Rosemary Joshua’s Romilda is her father’s child with nobility in the voice yet also a vulnerable femininity while her beau David Daniels is as strapping and heroic as a counter-tenor can manage.
Thankfully the more comic characters are played relatively straight; Brindley Sherratt avoids conventional bluster as the soldier prince Ariodate, Hilary Summers avoids playing Amastre as a Persian Katisha and Andreas Wolf avoids hamming it up as the servant Elviro. Threatening to steal the show is newcomer Joélle Harvey with impeccable technique and lustrous silvery tone as minx-with-a-soul Atalanta; a right little sex-kitten, she is!
Curnyn’s tempi are sensible while unfailingly lively and the band is vibrantly responsive to his direction. Chandos has recorded the performance with wonderful transparency in a realistic perspective and has provided excellent documentation. With its careful balance of the comic and the heroic this would now be my first choice over Nicolas McGegan’s lively but vocally flawed performance and William Christie’s rather too grand and gala account.