Opera Holland Park
Reviewed – 30th June 2022
“The company not only gives the audience a satisfying sound in the voices, but also in period instruments such as the harpsichord and theorbo”
If you have never been to the Holland Park Opera, you are in for a treat. There is something magical about walking through the Park and the lavender and rose scented gardens to reach the auditorium. The space is open air, but protected from the elements by a large tent which covers both the stage and audience seating. Be aware that it will get cold towards the end of the evening, and come prepared with warm jackets and a lap blanket. Then settle in and prepare to be enchanted by Handel’s Serse, performed and produced by Figure, a new historical performance ensemble. Director Sam Rayner and musical director Frederick Waxman have assembled a talented mix of singers, musicians and acrobats, and made some judicious cuts to Serse, which ensure a manageable two hour playing time.
Handel had been living in London for over twenty five years by the time he wrote Serse, and was a well established leading composer for operas on London stages. Unluckily, interest in opera began to decline around the time he wrote Serse. It was not a success when it premiered in 1738. The story concerns a love quadrangle involving two pairs of siblings, King Xerxes (Serse) and his brother Arsamene, and two sisters, Romilda and Atalanta. Romilda and Arsamene are declared, if secret lovers, but then Xerxes hears Romilda’s singing and promptly falls in love. Atalanta is also in love with Arsamene, and plots to win him for herself. In the original libretto used by Cavalli in his Il Xerse, there was a complicated subplot about Xerxes’ military exploits and a jilted fiancée named Amastre. Handel sensibly simplified Cavalli’s plot, and director Rayner has simplified Handel’s plot even further, by omitting the role of Amastre. The resulting story is dramatically satisfying, if a little contrived at the ending. It’s still feel good, however, and the audience’s laughter at seeing how the lovers are all sorted was warmly appreciative, rather than critical.
Cecelia Hall (mezzo soprano) in the title role is superb, and she entirely convinces as the despotic king Xerxes. She delivers the opening aria “Ombra mai fu” for which this opera is best known, with mastery. Hall is well matched with Sarah Tynan (soprano) who plays Romilda. Tynan’s arias are delightful, and her duet with Arsamene “Troppo oltraggi la mia fede”, is one of several highlights of the evening. Countertenor James Laing, as Arsamene, is, like Hall, comfortable with the acting, as well as the singing skills, needed to convince in his role. His sincerity as Romilda’s lover, and later, in the force of his doubt of her fidelity, holds this production together. Anna Cavaliero (soprano) rounds out the quarrelsome foursome as Atalanta, and manages to redeem the role of scheming minx who threatens her sister’s happiness. Timothy Nelson (baritone) doubling as the sisters’ father Ariodate and Arsamene’s bumbling servant Elviro, takes on such different roles without difficulty.
The only real weakness of this production of Serse is the staging. The physical stunts, performed by acrobats who accompany the main characters on the stage, work best when they provide more intimate frames for the action concerning the quarreling lovers. Otherwise, they tend to distract. It is easy to understand why Rayner included acrobats, and created a large space for them. It is a bold attempt to create a better fusion of the comic and tragic elements in this opera, and acknowledges Handel’s original intention. One could argue that the stage at Holland Park is too spacious for this kind of opera. The problem is compounded when your singers enter from the back, through the audience. But then again, a traditional eighteenth century opera house (or playhouse) would cramp the acrobats’ style, and diminish the liveliness of the staging choices, even when they don’t quite work. Kudos to Rayner for attempting a radical rethink of a 1738 problem.
The baroque orchestra, under the direction of Frederick Waxman, manages to accompany the singers, and hold its own, despite the outside noises of a cricket match, and the occasional passing plane. Once again, one has to admire the way in which performance ensemble Figure takes on the challenge of producing an opera designed for indoor spaces. The company not only gives the audience a satisfying sound in the voices, but also in period instruments such as the harpsichord and theorbo, which would not be everyone’s first choice for an experiment in opera outdoors.
This is Handel at his best, and this opera, in its present form, is one of his best. Serse can hold its own with the other operas of the eighteenth century, without difficulty. Take an opportunity to enjoy glorious music in a wonderful setting as there is a full season of other shows on offer. Enjoy!
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photo courtesy Figure
Opera Holland Park
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