You love her… But she loves him… And he loves somebody else… You just can’t win

Part of the complicated love pentagon of Serse: Heidi Stober as Atalanta, David
Daniels as Arsamenes, and Lisette Oropesa as Romilda. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Even though it wasn’t part of my annual subscription, I had heard such good things about Serse (Xerxes) that I jumped at a last-minute sale to take a seat in the balcony. I’m very happy with my subscription seats, but I must say that the balcony with Operavision was more than acceptable, although I’m glad I still brought my opera glasses. The only thing missing was La Maratonista, who was on her way back from Costa Rica at the time I took the plunge.

Of course, I don’t know if I could have convinced her to see a semi-obscure Baroque opera, especially one that clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes. Sure, she’s a triathlete, but a girl has limits. Although, reading that, she is probably laughing heartily as I’m the one that categorically refuses to see movies that run over 2½ hours. While I’m willing to extend that time limit somewhat for opera, I still prefer not to go over the three-hour mark. Suffice it say, neither of us will be committing to the Ring Cycle any time soon.

In any case, Serse is well worth the commitment. An opera seria by George Frideric Handel, first performed in London in 1738, this production is a revival of the one originally directed by Nicholas Hytner for the English National Opera in 1985 for the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth. Back in 1985, it was sung in English, but here it is in the original Italian. Although an opera seria, the work is actually one of Handel’s rare comedies and this production emphasized the comedic elements throughout.

The story starts off with an opening aria sung to a plane tree* and only gets more bizarre and confusing from there. A bridge to Europe is also involved at one point. And the twists and turns of the love subplots are harder to keep track of than the suitcases in What’s Up, Doc? In brief, Xerxes loves Romilda, but she is in love with his brother, Arsamenes. At the same time, Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also loves Arsamenes, and both lovelorn siblings plot to keep the two lovers apart. Meanwhile, Xerxes’ foreign fiancée, Amastris, arrives on the scene disguised as a man. Does it help that over half the cast have names that begin with A? No, it does not.

David Daniels as Arsamenes and Susan Graham as Xerxes.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

The various vocal assignments don’t help matters either. Since the Baroque era was the age of the castrati, the lead role of Xerxes, King of Persia, was written for a male soprano castrato, but is here sung by a mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham. Oddly enough, in Handel’s time, the role of Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes, was usually played by a mezzo-soprano, but is here played by a male countertenor, David Daniels. As you can see in the above photo, Daniels is quite the manly man in looks, so it was odd to hear such a high voice come out of his mouth. The gender bending continued with the arrival of contralto Amastris in male garb, and even the servant Elviro at one point dresses up as a flower seller.

Sonia Prina as Amastris. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael Sumuel as Elviro with Heidi Stober as Atalanta.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Really, the whole opera was vaguely reminiscent of an Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, which was only enhanced by the change of setting from ancient Persia to Vauxhall Gardens. And the music was gorgeous. How could I not love this?

Best thing I’ve seen all season.

Serse has just two more performances at the War Memorial Opera House on Wednesday, November 16, and Saturday, November 19. Catch it if you can.

*In a strange coincidence, this opening aria, “Ombra mai fu,” is featured in the second series of BBC’s The Choir, which I’ve been rewatching via On Demand this week, and which I can’t recommend enough.