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You only need listen to the first three tracks, including “Ombra mai fu”, the aria popularised by Kathleen Ferrier, to sense this is going to be an extremely classy account of a Handel opera. The remaining two and a half hours amply fulfil that promise, underlining Serse’s reputation as a progressive score – despite its relatively late (1738) place in Handel’s operatic output.
It is an unusual opera seria not just for its ironic and humorous asides, adding to the emotional variety of the music, but also for the number of short arias, many without da capos. Unlike most Handel operas, Serse doesn’t need to be cut for modern performance.
In the title role (Xerxes), Anna Stéphany can compete with the best of today’s mezzos: she combines feeling, dignity, elegance.
And with such polished Handelians as David Daniels, Hilary Summers, Brindley Sherratt and Rosemary Joshua in other leading roles, plus an enchanting young American soprano, Joélle Harvey, as Atalanta, this really is a baroque vocal feast.
If the “style” element is slightly understated, that’s because Curnyn shows such an easy command of the idiom: there is no aggressive accenting or exaggeration of tempo.
The DVD of English National Opera’s landmark staging, filmed in the late 1990s, remains in a class of its own, but on CD this new version easily outshines previous sets conducted by Brian Priestman, William Christie, Jean-Claude Malgoire and Ivor Bolton.
(Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn)
Chandos (3 CDs)