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Not a bit like Italian conversation
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.