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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars
Handel: Serse
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on 3 September 2014
'Serse' is one of my favourite Handel operas, a largely comical opera with nevertheless some striking serious moments. Overall this recording from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company is very good but, for me, concentrates too much on the serious and mostly fails on the comedy. The only singer who seems to convey the fun of the piece is Joelle Harvey as the flighty Atalanta. The title role of Serse is a ridiculously pompous and posturing figure with underlying glints of real cruelty. He has a splendid array of arias to sing from the languorous 'Piu che penso' to the hectic 'Crudie furie' and Anna Stephany sings very well - although she sounds older than she looks! The romantic pair are Arsamene, sung here by David Daniels (excellent but now facing serious competition from the dynamic younger generation of countertenors) and Romilda, sung by Rosemary Joshua. Joshua's voice does show signs of wear now but its still very lovely and she is still - by a long shot - my favourite Romilda on disc. The spurned lover Amastre is sung by Hilary Summers. I have enjoyed Summers' work before but I'm not fond of her here - Amastre needs a richer and more agile contralto and Summers sounds a little threadbare. Both baritones are good although its the first time I've heard the comic turn Elviro sung completely straight! The band are quite lightweight and although they play well and very 'tastefully', I would have preferred a little more 'oomph'.

None of the generally available recordings of 'Serse' are ideal in my opinion - they all have a couple of weak links. Nicholas McGegan's recording is probably my favourite overall, although in an ideal world I'd swap the terrible Jennifer Smith for Rosemary Joshua and (the not so terrible but not brilliant) Judith Malafronte for Anne Sofie Von Otter (on the William Christie recording). There are also a couple of very good DVD versions - I will always have a soft spot for the ENO version with Ann Murray but the rival Christophe Rousset version has a very good cast including the really splendid Paula Rasmussen in the title role. As for this recording by Curnyn and his forces, I think its worth a listen and I don't regret buying it but it would not be my first choice.
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on 22 October 2014
This is an excellent recording by a team that has high standards and a wonderful sound. Rosemary Joshua, as Romilda, sings the soprano arias with clarity and beauty and she is supported by a first-rate cast. Having recently seen the outstanding ENO production, this recording is in the same world class. Their Semele is also excellent. May the Early Opera Company continue to flourish.
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on 11 December 2013
"Serse" is Christian Curnyn's third Handel opera (after "Partenope" in 2004 and "Flavio" in 2010). He deserves credit for persistence: organising and paying for these recordings must have been a sweat; but what musical qualities has he to offer?

Curnyn is competent; he gets his forces to play with unanimity, a skill one can't take for granted, particularly in the "early music". He is sensible, choosing appropriate tempi and phrasing, not pushing for extreme, attention-grabbing effects. He is more inclined to respond to a singer than to bend them to his will - quite the reverse of, say, Gardiner or Christie. He also experiments with different voices, realising even the best of singers may struggle with Handel's writing - and economics have, no doubt, also affected his choices.

One can understand why he picked "Serse" for his latest offering. The opera has good tunes and a plot we can follow, even enjoy, but it does not demand top-class singing, except in the title role. This reflects Handel's own situation in 1738. He only had one really serious voice available, the soprano castrato Caffarelli, and did not have great confidence in him. Caffarelli had a two-octave range to c"', but Handel never exposed him above g'', and mostly gave him slow "pathetic" music, only trusting him with one short bravura aria ("Crude furie degli orridi abissi"). The rest of the cast seem to have been even more limited. One - 'La Droghierina' - was really a sort of singing actress, a quality which Handel exploited when creating the role of Atalanta.

How do Curnyn's troops fare? The Caffarelli part goes to Anna Stéphany, a voice new to this repertoire. She is a powerful and expressive mezzo, yes, a bit "lush", but then so may Caffarelli have been. Stéphany sings Caffarelli's "pathetic" arias with style, and gets through "Crude furie" without struggle. David Daniels is imported to sing Arsamene, a part Handel wrote for the contralto Lucchesina (a--g"). It's not a great role, but Daniels makes the most of it dramatically. Amastre, the cross-dressing sort-of heroine, goes to Hilary Summers. Summers is a fine musician, but her voice is entirely undramatic - she sounds like a cathedral alto. Rosemary Joshua gets the other sort-of heroine, Romilda, a serious role that demands a good legato: Joshua, though a great trooper, has never been that sort of singer, and her voice is showing a lot of wear. She might have got away with singing Atalanta (written for Droghierina, the singing actress) which is anyway much more her sort of part, but instead that role went to Joélle Harvey, an unimpressive young soprano without acting ability, who seems to have modelled her singing on Joshua's. The result is that the two sisters, Romilda & Atalanta, who should be strongly contrasted as tragic heroine and flirt, sound like querulous twins. Another doubtful choice was the baritone Andreas Wolf, who thinks the comic servant Elviro is a serious character, and sings Elviro's mock-heroics as if he meant them.

Despite all this, Stéphany might have carried the show - she has the best music - but two more general problems prove fatal. One is recitative. This was Curnyn's most serious failing on previous discs, and has not improved here. He works mostly with Anglo-Saxon singers, who try to "sing" recitative in their full voice - not understanding, as Italians naturally do, that it should be a light, quick intonation: just like Italian conversation indeed. Curnyn does not demand this and the narrative consequently plods, except when David Daniels walks on - his stage experience brings the dialogue leaping to life; but I suppose he did not fly in for long enough to affect the others.

The other problem is that there are already many recordings of "Serse", most of them better than this. Christie's live recording is probably the best CD version, although the McGegan's has its points; David Thomas there shows how to make sense of Elviro. The best recording overall is undoubtedly Christophe Rousset's 2000 DVD. The visuals are muddy but the production is (by modern standards) quite sensible, and his cast includes Paula Rasmussen (a real soprano Serse), Ann Hallenberg, Patricia Bardon, and Sandrine Piau's incomparable Atalanta (she also takes the role on Christie's CD). One respects Curnyn's efforts, but he really cannot compete which such a team. There are still not a few Handel operas with less than adequate recordings: perhaps he should turn his attention in that direction - but put on a few concert performances at least, before he takes them into the studio.
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VINE VOICEon 4 September 2013
I had very high hopes for this project as an outstanding recording of this wonderfully odd opera has yet to be made. Alas, this is not it. The four stars are for

1.the playing: Curnyn and the Early Opera Company play beautifully even if sometimes there is a lack of great passion; the recording sounds fabulous even if the sound is "small" at times;

2.David Daniels' wonderfully nuanced Arsamene (a role he's played many times and it shows in every note, his confidence and engagement with the character);

3. Joelle Harvey's performance as Atalanta--bright, engaging and sung with real passion and fun.

The rest of the cast are less impressive. Anna Stephany is an imperious Serse and is often very good but is just as often a bit overripe and fruity in voice. If only Daniels had been given the title role and Stephany Arsamene--Arsamene is the trouser role after all. Rosemary Joshua's performace as Romilda is strangely reserved and I'm surprised that so many reviewers are impressed by her performace. Hilary Summers' Amastre is unappealingly sung at times, but that may be personal taste, as her tone tends more similar to Ewa Podles' slightly unnerving contralto than to Sara Mingardo's more refined instrument.

Is this recording better than the uneven live recording from William Christie? I'd have to say no--the Christie recording just squeaks past this one. In a way it's unfair to compare as Curnyn's studio recording lacks the excitement of the live recording; there is a real push to the Christie recording. I'm not the greatest fan of Anne Sofie von Otter but she and Sandrine Piau and Lawrence Zazzo deliver something edgier than this studio recording. McGegan's Serse is almost as good as Curnyn's, but the playing is not so crisp even if the singing is almost its equal.

This new recording is worth having and I can recommend it despite my reservations, but would equally recommend the Christie amd McGegan recordings. The great Serse is yet to be recorded.
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on 27 March 2014
Although Handel can be quite repetitive, there are many fine arias, tuneful and toe-tapping. Handel is one of the most approachable composers of all-time.
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on 30 October 2013
The record is just as good as it gets. All the singers are excellent as is the orchestra and the conducting. No Handel lover should think twice.
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on 7 October 2013
This is a lovely studio album with great singers and production. Put it on, sit back and enjoy it. You will not regret it.
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