If, like me, you eat baroque shit, the presentation of Handel’s “Serse” on Sunday at Carnegie Hall in the English Concert was probably for you. Those with more refined tastes were probably pleased too, as the conductor Harry Bicket and his ensemble of early music players offered a profusion of exquisite music.
The annual Handel series of the English Concert – this performance was the first since a radiant “Semele” in 2019 – gives New Yorkers the chance to hear Baroque opera and oratorios performed by high-calibre historical instrumentalists. A certain magic happens when Bicket gives the down-beat: the players unleash gleaming beams of sound from the Carnegie stage.
The main differences between the English Concert and a modern ensemble such as the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which Bicket also conducted, are the transparent texture and alert responsiveness. The English concerto can slow the tempo or skim a few decibels of volume from one bar to another. There is elasticity in the way the ensemble’s sound expands and contracts, responding to fluctuations in the intensity of the characters’ feelings and enlivening music mainly made up of strings and continuo.
Short ariettas and ariosos keep ‘Serse’, a comical love story, in motion. It is populated by serious historical characters – apocrypha be damned – and takes its humor from their improbable humanization. Serse, the king, takes advantage of his position to come between his brother Arsamene and Romilda – much to the delight of Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, who has plans for her lover. In the process, Serse leaves his fiancée, Amastre, who performs much of the opera while dressed as a man.
At Carnegie, the jokes started early. Lucy Crowe’s Romilda made a surprising entrance by popping up from a chair in the viola section. Daniela Mack’s Amastre proudly waved a disguise consisting mainly of wearing sunglasses. Mary Bevan’s Atalanta, an incorrigible flirt, passed Bicket and then someone in the front row. Twice. And there were other conductor shenanigans, one of the mainstays of the recent vintage: Bicket interrupted a tense moment in the drama to deliver a highly unwelcome letter. The audience loved it.
The star of the show was undoubtedly Crowe, who matched the color of her soprano to the music present. She evoked beautiful pastels and clammy highs for “Nè men con l’ombre” and played the short but crucial duet “L’amerete?” to a fully realized scene. Clean attacks, silky smooth legato and enchanting trills are at her disposal. If her refreshing impetuosity brought a little roughness to her sound, it didn’t matter: she’s a Handel singer to be heard.
The expressive possibilities that Handel gives the singers are limited rather than liberated for some of the other artists. Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, who released a rousing album of contemporary songs, ‘enargeia’ last year, was largely humorless as Serse, an autocrat who kept himself busy and who nevertheless had to plunge into romantic fantasies and outbursts of anger. When the music matched D’Angelo’s stern rendition, as in the fiery “Se bramate d’amar, chi vis sdegna,” it gave off sparks. Her voice grew sharper as she propelled the aria along with biting noises and quick walks.
As Amastre, Mack’s dark, ruddy mezzo-soprano shone best against the sparse orchestrations. Paula Murrihy sang with Polish, but struggled to find the gravitas for Arsamene’s largely unadorned music. Mary Bevan relied on cute bits rather than phrasing to convey Atalanta’s coquetry, but was connected in the character’s wounded moments. William Dazeley’s Elviro, a study in prankster, snuck really impressive high notes into his comic relief responsibilities. As Ariodate, Neal Davies showed off a tight bass-baritone with some spice in it.
With three hours of glorious music, the English Concert almost dispelled all memories of the three years it took the ensemble to return. Next up: Handel’s “Solomon” — in just 10 months.
The English Concert
Performed on Sunday at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan.