The Danish Royal Theater has achieved a reputation as a Handelian operatic venue since commendable DVDs of Giulio Cesare and Partenope have been released. The example apparently has been followed by Copenhagen’s New Opera, who, curiously, presented Handel’s Serse… in the Royal Theater’s old opera house (as in the above-mentioned DVDs). One cannot overlook the fact that the Barokksolistene do not have the polish and richness of the Concerto Copenhagen (at least as caught by the microphones); intonation is a bit unreliable, to start with, but conductor Lars Ole Mathiasen has a good ear for atmosphere and seems to find tempi that are both right for the dramatic pace and for his forces. The exception were the arie di bravure, in which passagework tested a bit his musicians.
As usual in Handel operas, the edition here adopted involve many cuts in recitatives and numbers, deletion of B sections, numbers trading place etc. Although the roles of Arsamene and Atalanta had the greater share of loss, director Elisabeth Linton gave every character in the plot enough action to define them to the audience. She benefited from a cast with outstanding acting skills and offered a sensitive and intelligent view of the plot, funny without ever bordering on silliness. I wish I could overlook Herbert Murauer’s ugly costumes, but I couldn’t – they looked cheap and pretentious in a performance where every other element was honest and effective. His sets also had more than a splash of kitsch, but that seemed to go with the eccentricities of Xerxes as portrayed here.
Romilda is one of the unluckiest roles in the whole Handel opera discography. After Lucia Popp’s luminous recording, no other soprano had done justice to the charming music Handel wrote to the character. But this evening it has been vindicated by Klara Ek’s exquisite performance. She sang affectingly with her golden-toned soprano that takes readily to coloratura and floats in ethereal pianissimi. I had heard in Bach’s Magnificat with the Berlin Philharmonic and found it all right, but this evening I have written down her name for the future. Atalanta is also a difficult piece of casting – everything points out to a soprano leggiero, but the tessitura is too low for that. Anne Mette Balling could not meet this requirement and failed to find her way in this part. This was the first time I have seen Tuva Semmingsen live and confess I expected a more incisive voice. Although her coloratura in Crude furie was excitingly handled, she lacks the heft for the more heroic moments. But this is the only (and minor) drawback in a delightful performance: the voice is beautiful, the low register is warm and fruity, the style is irreproachable and she is a truly marvelous actress who had the audience in her hands. I wonder if Arsamene is the right role for Matilda Paulsson. I’ve read she had sung Amastre – and that seems to make more sense. Her mezzo is dark and quite grainy (what masked a bit her attempts at trilling) and I was ready to say Handel is not really her repertoire. But then she seemed to declick in Sì, la voglio e l’otterò, handling her fioriture with true bravura. After that, she could even mellow her tone and sing indeed touchingly. Andrea Pellegrini had a similar evolution during the evening – at first, her contralto was so unfocused that one could not really hear her. Her voice, however, slowly, gained strength; eventually Cagion son’io del mio dolore would be beautifully sung. Although Johan Rydh has very precise divisions, the role of Ariodate is too low for him. I wonder if Jens Søndergaard (who was singing Elviro) would not be better cast in that role.