This re-issue provides a welcome opportunity to reappraise one of the milestone recordings in the history of Handel opera. At the time few of the canon had been recorded, and still fewer in historically-informed practice, as here. Nearly forty years later the recorded sound remains clear and crisp, aided by the performers being recorded fairly closely and also benefitting from the generous church acoustic which surrounds them, and they exploit a sense of space and distance effectively as the drama dictates.
Jean-Claude Malgoire’s interpretation is alert and well-sprung (except for the curiously leisured dotted opening section of the Overture), and sounds considerably more nimble than the stouter texture cultivated by Charles Mackerras with the English National Opera Orchestra in the production captured on film in 1988 and available on DVD, though that has its pleasures. It is fair to say that Malgoire’s version has not exactly been antiquated, but subsequent recordings of Serse overtake it in offering greater variety and stylishness. The succession of arias in Malgoire’s reading tends not to be overly contrasted, but sustains a roughly similar tone and tempo, which is either moderately brisk, or moderately relaxed.
That is a pity, for Serse is unlike virtually all of Handel’s other operas with its Venetian-style sequence of brief, often comic, numbers and interludes, rather than the full-blown da capo arias of opera seria. The effect verges on the austere, not least as La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy often sounds as though it consists of one player to a part, increasing slightly for the bolder sections such as the choruses.
One of the wonders of Handel’s operas is the variety of texture and atmosphere he conjures, and so it’s disappointing that his genius is downplayed somewhat in this account. The French-style embellishment added to Act Three’s Sinfonia is a notable exception. Otherwise, string tone can be wiry, and when in combination with the oboes, the resulting timbre comes across as a touch acidic. The chorus is a touch rough and ready on occasion as well.
That aside, Malgoire’s cast is distinguished and creditable, led by Carolyn Watkinson’s assured Serse. Generally she is radiant, but sometimes she is steely, though that means her whizzing cadenzas are well controlled. There is a slightly brittle wobble in Paul Esswood’s singing as Serse’s brother Arsamene, and there are times when he projects more confidently, though there is haunting forlornness in Act One’s ‘Non so se sia la speme’ and his coloratura is accomplished too. Ortrun Wenkel’s Amastre is sometimes foursquare, but elsewhere there is greater colour in her realisation. More distinguished are Barbara Hendricks’s pure-toned Romilda (sounding almost like a treble in some instances) and Anne-Marie Rodde’s coquettish Atalanta. The Ariodate of Ulrik Cold is languid, but Ulrich Studer as the comic servant Elviro is characterful.
More-recent recordings offer greater drama and vivacity, such as William Christie’s with Les Arts Florissants (Anne Sofie von Otter in the title role) or the Early Opera Company under Christian Curnyn, but probably the most consistently satisfying account remains Nicholas McGegan’s with the Hanover Band. Even so, Handelians will find Malgoire’s version of more than historical interest.