, September 2011
You may not be familiar with Handel’s opera Serse (Xerxes), but you will certainly recognize its first aria. The oft-recorded Ombra mai fu is a staple of recital albums and baroque best-ofs. Even though it’s a brief piece—just around three minutes long—it sets the tone for the rest of the work. In an interesting turnaround, most of the singers here are women; in Handel’s time, the female roles were sung by men, but here only two of the soloists are men (the baritone and bass). There are no counter-tenors for a change, with women playing the men’s roles of Serse and Arasmene.
Serse is full of wonderful music, and it’s Paula Rasmussen, as Serse, who shines in this performance. She stands out with both a wonderful voice, and an attractive stage presence. During the performances filmed, she gets applause several times after her numbers, showing that the audience in Dresden fell under her charm as well. Sandrine Piau is also excellent with some wonderful arias, and the rest of the cast is fine. The small orchestra—it looks to be about twenty musicians at most—is admirable, providing a clean, crisp sound.
The modernized staging is attractive, and is not a distraction, as is sometimes the case. The camera-work was well-judged, alternating often between tight shots and wider shots. The only negative about the production itself is the fact that it was filmed in 4:3 rather than in wide-screen format. It dates from 2000, when wide-screen filming was less common.
All in all, this is a fine two-and-a-half hours, with a wonderful cast led by Paula Rasmussen. Lovers of Handel operas will find this to be a delightful evening programme.