English Concert return with a sensational “Serse” at Carnegie Hall

Mon May 09, 2022 at 3:04 pm
Mary Bevan (Atalanta) and Lucy Crowe (Romilda) in Handel’s Serse, presented by Harry Bicket and the English Concert Sunday at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

For some classical music lovers, the biggest casualty of the pandemic was the cancellation of the annual Handel opera performance from the English Concert and conductor Harry Bicket. It’s another important sign of approaching normalcy that the ensemble was back at Carnegie Hall Sunday afternoon with a superb group of singers to perform Serse. The concert, as usual, was one of the best things heard so far this season.

No one plays and sings Handel like these musicians, and there are few composers who bring out as much vocal and expressive artistry as does Bicket. And the English Concert consistently books excellent singers who are technically virtuosic and full of musical artistry and inner life. 

On Sunday, that included burgeoning star mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo in the title role; Soprano Lucy Crowe as Romilda, the woman Serse chases; mezzo Paula Murrihy as Serse’s brother Arsamene; soprano Mary Bevan as Romilda’s sister Atalanta; and mezzo Daniela Mack as Amastre, the princess promised to Serse in marriage.

That character breakdown hints at the near incomprehensibility of the plot, which revolves around a letter that is somehow both meant for a specific character but not addressed to anyone in particular—apparently, because more than one cheater thinks it’s for them. The story is somewhat more standard, at least for an opera—it’s a love pentagon, as Romilda is engaged to Arsamene, Atalanta is in love with Arsamene, and Amastre spends most of the opera disguised as a soldier and angry at Serse for not recognizing her. 

As fraught as this may seem on paper—along with the threat of exile and execution in the background—at its heart this is a comic opera about love, misunderstanding, reconciliation and redemption. Moving that along are the two male roles, bass-baritone Neal Davies as the stolid general Ariodate, father to the sisters, and baritone William Dazeley, terrific as the clownish jack-of-no-trades, Elviro.

This all works because the music is not just brilliantly lyrical, as is Handel, but full of invention and character, and these singers filled it with rich personality. One also feels that the concert performance brings out the best in the singers; with nothing but the simplest modern costumes and the occasional witty bit of staging, there is no other way to deliver the story except to sing it.

Right at the start is one of Handel’s most famous arias, “Ombre mai fu,” sung by Serse. It is, of course, one of the lovely, lyrical arias in the opera, but not even the best one of its kind. But it does underline an important feature of the score, which is that the slower arias are the heights of the opera. While Handel’s fast music is full of dazzling articulation, the slow arias give the singers the deepest opportunities to display their expressive and interpretive musicality, and to develop the most beautiful sounds.

And while articulation, and ornamental vibrato, were excellent throughout the performance, it was a resonating pleasure to hear voices like that of Crowe expand and sustain Handel’s lines. “Ombra mai fu” is followed by “O voi,” Romilda’s response to hearing Serse, and Crowe’s singing was exquisite. Her shining, pure tone was beautiful in itself, and her dynamics and rising and falling phrasing were tremendously expressive and gorgeous. Likewise, her virtuosic articulation in the fast music was thrilling in this bravura performance.

D’Angelo seemed a little stiff at first, perhaps a little too self-consciously regal. But as the concert went on, her vocal poise loosened into an artistic and effective approach to the phrasing—she seemed to be singing at a pace that was coordinated with the orchestra yet a hair slower. There was the sense that as king, Serse was taking command over the passage of time. Add to these the darkness of her voice, strong like cast-iron but without heaviness, and this was a performance that was musically and dramatically first-class.

Murrihy sang with as much beauty as Crowe, and Bevan and Mack were fully involved in the character of their music. On an overall scale, there was an interesting aesthetic feature that added to the effect of the performance—no countertenor to be found in any of the “trouser” roles. These types of roles have come down as integral to the opera tradition, from Handel to Strauss and Stravinsky, and as tradition are little considered. But the effect is always worth examining, at the very least for the expressive ambiguity it opens up, with the listener asked to accept the convention of a clear woman’s voice in a male role.

Of his time, Handel wrote these parts for a castrato in the lead, with contralto’s in the other “male” leads. With an artist like D’Angelo, this ambiguity is part of the pleasure. The richness and strength of her voice, especially the timbre in her lower register, were less about being specifically male than about being commanding and imperial. Her aloof, unhurried posture on stage was part of this, everything she sang was about dictating actions, and so the music and other characters spinning around her on their own were a compelling part of the drama.

As was the multiple layers of vocal and dramatic complexity. Murrihy’s lighter mezzo made Arsamene sound not just sweeter but more sympathetic than Serse. And Mack, singing with both force and a casual, self-contained swagger, was an excellent wild card. Her role was the necessary trickster who instigates key conflicts, and her stage presence was explicitly about a woman relishing being disguised as a man, not comical but serious, and mocking Serse for not seeing through the subterfuge. Her big Act III aria, “Cagion son io,” another one of Handel’s plangent, slow numbers, was exceptional, one of the musical and dramatic high points of the performance, Mack expressing a complex mix of anger, sorrow, and determination.

Harry Bicket conducted Handel’s Serse. Photo: Richard Termine

The instrumental performance was on this same level. The English Concert produces an extraordinary range of color, beyond that of most period-instrument groups, and the string intonation was flawless, a purity of sound that was simply lovely and affecting in and of itself. Pacing felt perfect throughout, and some of the staging even got Bicket into the act, with Atalanta flirting with him at one point, and in another the conductor, with a touch of exasperation, got up to pass the infamous letter on to yet another character, as if he had seen enough.

2 Responses to “English Concert return with a sensational “Serse” at Carnegie Hall”

  1. Posted May 09, 2022 at 9:05 pm by CastaDiva

    Wonderful performance and an exquisite treat for lovers of baroque opera. Bicket truly creates magic on stage with his talented orchestra and superb singers.

    Am already looking forward to next season’s Solomon.

  2. Posted May 10, 2022 at 8:10 am by Karen G. Krueger

    An excellent, insightful review that enhances my retrospective enjoyment of a blissful afternoon.

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