Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti 2019 Review: Serse
Handel’s work Gets A Lively Rendition With A Potent CastBy Alan Neilson
Serse’s short aria, “Ombra mai fu,” in which he passionately addresses a plane tree, may be the most famous aria from Handel’s opera “Serse,” but is it the most significant moment in the work? Certainly, an argument could be made for it being the case, as it establishes from the outset Seres’s strong, but superficial emotional response to the world around him; a man who can generate such emotions about a piece of vegetation is likely to react with powerful emotions towards anything that crosses his path, regardless of its significance. The fact that he immediately falls in love with Romilda after only hearing her voice, or wishes to execute his brother Arsamene on the strength of a whim, being evidence of the fact.
However, does the plane tree have the significance on which to root the whole production?
Certainly the director, Gabriele Vacis, thinks so. Or at least he does when he adds to it a line from a film by Michaelangelo Antonini, called “Zabriskie Point,” set just after the student riots of 1968, in which one character says to another, “Pretend that your ideas are plants,” to which the other replies, “It would be great to plant thoughts into people’s heads.”
Like 1968, 1738 was a time of great change, a time when magic and superstition were under attack from rationality and the ideas of the enlightenment. Vacis runs with the idea and ponders a world in which you could plant thoughts into the heads of the youth which would protect their authenticity from the world in which they are pressurized to conform, and which would allow them to be true to themselves, to their passions. As a starting point it is certainly a valid one. However, it is how the idea is translated to the stage that ultimately matters. The final scene has the principal singers grouped together, in a state of enlightened harmony, whilst behind on a raised stage, stand the non-singing extras with tall plants on their heads, as does Atlanta, who is a bit of a rebel.
Perhaps it is slightly unfair to present this example as representative, and certainly Vacis and his scenographer, Roberto Tarasco, developed the theme over the course of the opera, allowing the final scene to be understood, (to the extent that it could be understood), within its overall context.
Tarasco divided his staging into three distinct sections. On the lower level, sat the orchestra, which for musical reasons, had been raised to the same level as the audience, and was integrated with the stage above by having the scenery overflow into the pit. The stage, itself, was divided into two sections; a long, narrow space for the singers, with a larger raised area for actors to mime their comments, or to accentuate and reflect on the proceedings below them. Occasionally, a curtain descended, separating the upper and lower stages, onto which were projected images, including those of a tree from Turin, which is claimed to have been planted in the same year as the opera was premiered, as well as the open smiling faces of the young actors. If the aim was to create an integrated staging, in which all the components that make up the opera were clearly defined and simultaneously brought together, it did not work. In fact, the opposite was the case. Often it was to distracting to watch the actors miming, whose messages were not always obvious. It was much more satisfying to focus on the singers.
The singers, however, were constrained by the narrow space into which they had been forced, which occasionally hampered their movement. Vacis had all the singers on stage more or less permanently. When not participating they would sit at dressing tables and watch the ongoing drama, or ready themselves for their next aria, or interact with each other; sometimes it was amusing, sometimes distracting.
The characters were dressed in colorful 18th century costumes, also designed by Tarasco, that reflected their social position. At least this was the case for the most part, but Vacis was too keen to introduce further ideas into his presentation, so he was unable to allow the fact that it was women playing male roles, and in one instance a woman playing the part of a woman pretending to be a man, without drawing added attention to the fact.
Vacis was simply too enthusiastic, he had too much he wanted to share with the audience. None of the ideas were without merit, but piling them one on top of another, whilst at the same time not always clarifying their meaning, meant that the focus of the drama was not always maintained. In this case less would have been more.
However, Vacis was far more successful in two important areas. Firstly, he captured the rapid interchanges and interaction which characterise “Serse.” This is not an opera in the typical 18th century form, rather it is based on a libretto written in 1654 for Cavalli, by Minato. There is, therefore, more fluidity than found in operas of the 18th century. For example only half the arias have a da capo. Vacis embraced this aspect and promoted an engaging pace, playing upon the quick movement of the dialogue.
Secondly, “Serse” is not an opera seria, but a mix of the serious and comedic; some characters such as Arsamene are wholly serious, others less serious. Elviro for example, is a typical buffo role. Other characters, such as Atlanta, move between the two. It is not easy to combine the noble and highfalutin with lowbrow comedy, yet Vacis managed the balance fairly well, although he did downplay the comedy in certain scenes, notably so in the finale.
Overall High Quality
On the musical side this was a presentation of high quality indeed, containing a number of outstanding performances, as well as fabulous playing from the orchestra, Accademia Bizantina. Under the direction of Ottavio Dantone, they produced a performance that was fresh and elegant, which uncovered the rich textures of the score, and highlighted the dynamic contrasts.
The soprano, Arianna Vendittelli, was excellent in the role of Serse. If she did not fully capture the whimsical viciousness or the heavy irony of the character, her presentation was no less compelling, and her ability to portray a male figure was near perfect.
She possesses a wonderfully secure soprano, which is full-bodied and secure across the range, which suffers from no loss of power, depth or beauty as she moves into her higher register. Her role has some of the works more interesting arias; obviously there is ”Ombra mai fu,” but her final aria, “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi,” in which Handel mocks the usual histrionic invocations to the furies, is also a fine piece and allowed Vendittelli to display her excellent vocal control and agility. This was further underpinned by her rich sounding coloratura and the beautiful coloring of the voice in a deliberately accentuated delivery.
Serse’s brother and rival, Arsamene, was parted by the mezzo-soprano, Marina De Liso. Often bullied by Serse and constantly in state of despair, he eventually gives voice to his pain in the aria, “Amor, tiranno Amor,” in which he laments the cruelty of his fate. De Liso’s rendition brilliantly captured his deep affliction, spinning out lines, delicately accented, and beautifully colored. In the aria, “Si, la voglio e la otterò,” in which Arsamene finally stands up for himself, she produced a passionate statement, which added another dimension to the character, burnishing her voice with an array of colours and delivered with dramatic force. They were two engaging arias, which showcased De Liso’s qualities, and illustrative of her overall performance.
The soprano, Monica Piccinini showed off her vocal skills and the beautiful timbre of her voice in the role of Romilda, the object of Serse and Asamene’s attentions. Although essentially a serious character, she did not lack for passion nor occasional levity, as Picinini brought depth to the character, through carefully placed inflections and subtle intonation. She displayed good vocal control, securely placing and holding the top notes, and her light coloratura was a delight. Recitatives were emotionally and clearly sung, underpinned with sincerity and emotional intensity.
Francesca Aspromonte is a young singer, who not only possesses a prodigious talent, but also knows how to bring a character to life through her acting. Playing the role of the coquettish Atlanta, Aspromonte’s subtle gestures said so much more than the heavy-handed gestures that one usually witnesses. Vocally she is also growing into a more confident and formidable singer. She used the voice, which is always well-centered, secure and clear, with such finesse and agility that she was able to craft a subtly drawn portrait of Atlanta, which moved beyond her flirtatious, playful exterior; her singing of the arioso, “Voi mi dite che non l’ami,” beautifully expressed Atlanta’s inner pain.
Amastre was played by the French contralto, Delphine Galou. Her fixing of a false beard as a disguise generated some lightness and laughter to what was otherwise an intense, harsh and serious portrayal. Galou has a good technique and manages her phrasing with skill and intelligence, and delivered a strong emotional portrait. However, the projection of the voice remains a problem, and compromised what was otherwise an engaging performance. Also, her acting was too mannered, also detracting from the overall impact.
Serse’s successful general Ariodate, the father of Romilda and Atlanta, was played by Luigi De Donato, who has a very strong stage presence. He made a good impression in the role; his voice is strong and agile, with the ability to vary its coloring, which he used to good effect in characterizing the role.
The bass baritone Biagio Pizzuti played the role of the gardener Elviro in true buffo style, hamming up the comedy at every turn. He characterized the role with skill, bringing depth with his intelligently crafted singing. During the second act, his lightly constructed picture of an amiable drunk was both convincing and funny.
Musically, this production for the Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti delighted on all levels; it had an excellent cast, backed with an orchestra which specializes in the baroque repertoire. And if the staging at times lacked focus, it was nevertheless full of ideas, with scenes which visually engaged and managed to capture the pace of the work.