This set was recorded as recently as November last year, in the same Italian villa where Alan Curtis' Handel operas were recorded (and Max Emmanuel Cencic's 2016 "Ottone"). This recording is technically excellent; a convincing balance throughout – it sounds as if voices and instruments are indeed in the same room – with plenty of air around the performers. It's not the acoustic of a theatre, but we could be in a large palace salon.
Maxim Emelyanychev gets credited as conductor, but we're not left in any doubt that this is really the Franco Fagioli show. Fagioli seems to have set up an Handel production outfit to rival Cencic's Flying Circus; as well as taking the star role he's chosen the other participants – and (to judge from the photographs) he takes over musical direction (at least during his own arias).
Presumably he thought "Serse" a suitable vehicle for his voice and (up to a point) I agree with him. Caffarelli (Handel's original 1st Man) was a true soprano; Handel put most of his part at the top end of the stave and this suits Fagioli who (like most falsettists) is much more comfortable upstairs than down. I don't like Fagioli's voice (it's hard-edged and he has an inbuilt bleat) but he does sounds more appropriate and stylish here than he has before. Only in Caffarelli's big showpiece "Crude furie degli orridi abissi" does Fagioli let rip in a serious shriekfest. The trouble is, though, that nearly all the other high voices sound very like his. Arsamene (Serse's brother) and his promised spouse Amastre are also hard-edged wobblers: only the heroine Romilda (Igna Kalna) is softer-voiced and thus identifiable. I found little actual pleasure in any of the singing.
But a more serious problem is the failure to understand the nature of the piece. Serse is not a standard "serious" early 18th century opera. Probably just for convenience Handel chose an old libretto that Bononcini had set 40 years previously (Handel pinched some of his musical ideas while he was at it). This text is full of 17th century conventions; short arias, a complicated plot and stock characters, the tragic and the comic mixed in together. The heroine's sister Atalanta (for example) is a comic flirt; Elviro is a comic servant in the pantomime tradition – neither makes dramatic sense unless so presented. And the action has to be kept fast and light most of the time. No-one here shows much awareness of any of this. Francesca Aspromonte, the Atalanta, is as unteasing a flirt as ever there was; Biagio Pizzuti, the proto-Leporello, remembers to be a comedian in the first scene of Act II but forgets the rest of the time. The main action moves on very flat feet. Only the band seems to have a sense of humour, and it does give pleasure; but even this opera is in the end about the singers.
This is not a bad performance but it is not well-informed, and several other much better are available. The best CD set is Christie's – he has an incomparable Atalanta in Sandrine Piau – but it's also worth listening to McGegan's recording for David Thomas, who alone on disc makes sense of Elviro's part. The best overall recording is Christophe Rousset's 2000 DVD. Its staging is (by modern standards) quite sensible, and his cast includes Paula Rasmussen (a true soprano Serse), Ann Hallenberg, Patricia Bardon, and again Sandrine Piau's really sexy Atalanta.
I just heard part of this recording on Radio 3 and have streamed the rest here - thanks Amazon! What a performance. All the roles are fully inhabited by the cast, and the musicality and sense of true Baroque fun is second to none. My classic recording with Anne Marray sounds sadly pedestrian in comparison. I particularly, especially liked the woodwind at Romilda's entry - so deft and light and sweet - almost Muppet-like in its playfulness. Brilliant.
'Serse' is one of Handel's loveliest operas. Quite apart from the hero's famous 'Ombra mai fu', it's full of other fine melodies; graceful, dashing or furious arias; and opportunities for great singing and instrumental work; even the plot is not too bad by baroque-opera standards. Maxim Emelyanychev, directing the Italian-based Il Pomo d'Oro ensemble from the harpsichord, has assembled a first-class team of vocal soloists for this recording. Countertenor Franco Fagioli is outstanding in the lead role, and there is also great work from Vivica Genaux, Francesca Aspromonte, Delphine Galou, Andrea Mastroni and others.
After a vigorous and spirited overture from the excellent period-instrument band, 'Ombra mai fu' is given a beautiful, hushed performance by Fagioli and players alike. The ensemble also shine in their Sinfonia to Act 3, and indeed in all their stylish, sensitively played aria accompaniments and ritornelli. There are far too many enjoyable moments to list here, but the sequence including the brilliantly furious Romilda/Arsamene duet 'Troppo oltraggi la mia fede' (CD3, track 13) and Serse's even-more-furious aria 'Crude furie degl'orridi abissi' (18) is brought off with wonderful panache, leading to a fine, convoluted, typically baroque solve-all-your-problems-for-free climax at the end of Act 3.
Recorded sound is absolutely outstanding, with great realism of voices and instruments. Booklet essays are also excellent, including one from Donna Leon in which she tries hard to be amusing – with limited success in my opinion, but some customers might react more favourably. We are also given an extremely useful, detailed plot summary, a list of characters with clear explanations as to who they are and how they relate to one another; and libretto and translation are included. I agree with fellow reviewer C. Wake (writing on Amazon UK) that the production falls short in the humour and irony departments; but Handel's music stands up so well even without this aspect that musically I consider it a great success.
There are several other very good recordings of 'Serse' available, including those directed by McGegan, Christie, Curnyn and Bicket. I'm not in a position at the moment to make comparisons with these other modern recordings but, for a few pointers, please refer to C. Wake's review.