On April 15th and 16th, the Liceu presented a concert version of Händel’s baroque opera Serse. It was a charming and lively evening, warmed by the evident enjoyment and intimate cooperation of the singers and the chamber orchestra, the Ensemble Matheus—a French group founded in 1991. One of the moving forces was Jean-Christophe Spinosi, the animated and jocular conductor, who was not above stealing a violinist’s instrument to play a few bars himself (a no doubt well-rehearsed moment but still fun for the audience). Nor did the orchestra hold back when, towards the end, they rose as one body and sang two choruses of the opera—and very well, too.
The soloists were all excellent and acted their roles with zest. The story was too ridiculous to waste time on: the usual he-loves-her-and-she-loves-another-who-loves-yet-someone-else. It was complicated by the fact that the most unreasonable lover was the King Serses (or Xerxes as we know him in English), and he, of course, had the most power. So in and out they came, pouring out their frustration, their passion and their hopes and fears. Had they not been singing so beautifully, I would like to have boxed their ears!
As usual in baroque opera, the sex of singer and role were by no means clear-cut. King Serse was sung richly by mezzo-soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco and his brother Arsamene by countertenor David DQ Lee, who was both a brilliant singer and an impulsive actor. The standout performance was that of Argentinian soprano Verónica Cangemi, the major loser on the battlefield of love. Her voice was rich and her portrayal of the angry Atalanta was full of character. Ivonne Fuchs (a strong mezzo with a Wagnerian touch) and soprano Hanna Husáhr were equally appealing, though I wish that Husáhr had refrained from changing her dress during the intermission. Nobody else did, and it was a trifle showy. In a small but fun role, baritone Christian Senn played the overly-opinionated servant, and bass Luigi de Donato made a late yet welcome appearance.
Whether the Liceu’s use of concert performances is a matter of economics is unimportant. What IS important is that we get to see many additional and often rare performances that would not be possible if presented in full regalia. And, indeed, when the performers are enthusiastic and almost unable to prevent themselves from acting as well as singing—as they were in Serse—we, the audience, are very well served indeed.
Up next: Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, the Italian bel canto version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Joyce DiDonato sings Romeo and Ekaterina Siurina is Juliet. Costumes are by Christian Lacroix. There will be ten performances, starting on May 17th and ending on June 1st.