Handel: Serse / Bicket, The English Concert
Each new Handel release by The English Concert and Harry Bicket is a milestone in the composer’s discography, and the latest, Serse – ‘a spectacular treat for Handel lovers’ (The Times) – is no different. Created to astonish London audiences in 1728, Handel’s romantic and at times comic opera Serse is a spectacular drama of love, war, power and civil engineering set in ancient Persia, whose opening aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ remains an enduring favourite. Serse rules a vast empire, but the human heart is more difficult to command, and sometimes the beauty of a plane tree is the only constant in a dangerous world. The work is complemented by a world-class cast including the ‘barnstorming’ (The Daily Telegraph) Emily D’Angelo as the lovestruck king and Lucy Crowe as Romilda.
As David Vickers points out in his excellent commentary on this latest offering from master Handelians Harry Bicket and The English Concert, [Handel's Serse] ran for only five performances, in April 1738. Fast forward to the 1920s, when a modern performance tradition took root and gradually gained momentum, helped no doubt by what became one of the most famous opening arias of all time: Ombra mai fu.
The story focuses on the amorous predicaments of Serse and his brother Arsamene. Serse falls in love with Romilda, unaware that Romilda is already in love with Arsamene, and he with her. To complicate matters further, Romilda’s sister Atalanta also has feelings for Arsamene, and attempts to sabotage their relationship. Then there’s the small matter of Serse already being betrothed to Amastre, who disguises herself as a soldier the more easily to exact revenge for Serse’s fickleness. But fear not: it all ends well, with both couples ultimately reconciling. It’s all a bit daft. Thankfully, Handel’s music is sublime, with arias, duets, choruses and orchestral music negotiating the opera seria and buffa elements with imagination, lightness and panache.
And this is a sublime cast. Bicket and The English Concert’s credentials are self-recommending, the soloists’ nearly so. There are mezzos Emily D’Angelo, Paula Murrihy and Daniela Mack as Serse, Arsamene and Amastre respectively. Sopranos Lucy Crowe (Romilda) and Mary Bevan (Atalanta). Finally, bass-baritone Neal Davies (Ariodate) and baritone William Dazeley (the servant Elviro). This studio recording was made in All Saints’ East Finchley in May last year, following live concert performances in the UK and the US. D’Angelo’s ode to a plane tree is the curtain-raiser it should be: tonally rich, focused and playing it completely straight. There’s something grounding about it, too, despite its ethereal qualities (contrast these with her later Crude furie degl’orridi abissi), which really sets the tone for the quality of the performances to follow. Such as Crowe’s, in numbers such as O voi and the spectacular Va godendo vezzoso e bello; but also Chi cede al furore. Bevan’s Un cenno leggiandretto and Mack’s beautiful Cagion son io.
Here, and elsewhere, Bicket (who directs from the harpsichord) and The English Concert play with a technical and stylistic command that is above reproach, lithe strings, plangent winds and a punchy continuo section more than making up for the theatrical elements invisible to a home listener.
Release Date: June 09, 2023
Catalog Number: CKD709
Label: Linn Records
Number of Discs: 3
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Orchestra/Ensemble: The English Concert
Performer: Neal Davies, Lucy Crowe, William Dazeley, Paula Murrihy, Emily D’Angelo, Harry Bicket, Mary Bevan, Daniela Mack
Composer: George Frideric Handel
Ensemble: The English Concert
Performer: Emily D’Angelo (Mezzo-Soprano), Paula Murrihy (Mezzo-Soprano), Daniela Mack (Mezzo-Soprano), Lucy Crowe (Soprano), Mary Bevan (Soprano), Neal Davies (Bass-Baritone), William Dazeley (Baritone)
Conductor: Harry Bicket