Recent weeks have provided a cross section of the evolution of opera during the Eighteenth Century. A rather unexpected Handel ("Serse", Buenos Aires Lírica, Avenida) and a recognized Mozart masterpiece ("Così fan tutte", Juventus Lyrica, Avenida)
Although the resurrection of Handel has been going on steadily since the 1920s in Europe, little of it has come to these coasts, where we have barely scratched the surface. Buenos Aires Lírica is certainly to be commended, for it has brought to us in recent years the first complete "Rodelinda", the premiere of "Agrippina" and now the revival of "Serse" (1737), only played in 1971 at the Colón. May their good work go on steadily, and I put my wish list: "Alcina", "Rinaldo" and "Tamerlano".
There´s a curious thing about "Serse": the famous Handel Largo, of which there are about a hundred recordings, is a bowdlerized version of the inicial aria sung by Serse, which turns out to be really a satirical ode to a plantain in pure Baroque style…not a lachrymose pseudoreligious Romanticized piece. There´s another rather strange fact: this presumed "opera seria" on Xerxes, the great Persian king of ancient times whose exploits are told by Herodotus, turns out to be a convoluted pentagon of crossed loves between Serse, Romilda, Arsamene (Serse´s brother), Atalanta (Romilda´s sister), and Amastre (a dumped bride of Serse disguised as a warrior). Other characters: Ariodate, commander of Serse´s troups and father of Romilda and Atalanta; and Elviro, servant to Arsamene, a completely "buffo" role. What? A "buffo" in an "opera seria"? yes, it´s one of the surprises. For, as Claudio Ratier explains in his interesting programme notes, this isn´t a typical "seria", for it incorporates aspects of the Venetian opera of Monteverdian times, such as "buffo" characters in a "seria" context. Also, there are more duets than usual and some of the arias aren´t "da capo" (ABA); some even aren´t quite arias. So, the music is mostly fast, little of it is sad, and the whole thing is charming to hear and difficult to sing. Alas, the dramatic action is mostly inane. The libretto is based on an earlier one by Nicolò Minato presumably adapted by Handel himself.
I can understand the urge of producer Pablo Maritano to find a way to give some pep to this flat cake. His solution is trendy and not quite to my taste but he does enliven things: a) of course time periods are completely jumbled and you see majordomos out of Mozart, military gents in British raj uniforms, Belle Époque cocottes, the Eiffel tower, and a big etcetera of purposely incongruous things; b) you must have action all the time, even during the overture; c) arias are always intermingled with physical gags in which are omnipresent four valets and two maids; d) the visuals are generally handsome and even beautiful; e) he invents witchy shrieks for the conniving girls. Well, I do believe one can be funny and keep a Baroque coherence, certainly not Maritano´s aim, and there´s the rub; but I admit I wasn´t bored, and that´s a feat in this piece. Stage designs by María José Besozzi and costume designs by Sofía Di Nunzio responded fully to Maritano´s views.
In the musical side the best thing was the orchestra under Alejo Pérez, who keeps surprising audiences with his versatility and command; the playing was lithe and pleasant, not historicist (modern instruments) except for the very able continuo (cello, theorbo and harpsichord). The Chorus has little to do but it was well done (Juan Casasbellas). Of the soloists I especially liked Rosa Domínguez as the protagonist (after a rather wan "Ombra mai fu") and Ivanna Speranza as Romilda. Marisa Pavón was too shrill and Klára Csordás has a rather hard timbre and dicey florid singing. Chilean countertenor José Lemos (debut) is too glottal in his attack and too wild in his highs. Sergio Carlevaris was a competent Ariodate and Norberto Marcos a funny Elviro with a fine voice.
"Così fan tutte" has been staged repeatedly in recent seasons, but Juventus Lyrica came up with a rather interesting version, where the young Argentine Hernán Schvartzman, who lives in Holland, led an orchestra made up of a mixture of students of The Hague´s Conservatory and of local players; they played well under the conductor´s alert indications, and he was apparently responsible for some useful Classical ornamentation in the vocal parts (at times it sounded a bit too unusual).The Choir under Rubén Pesce acted and sang with gusto. Ana D´Anna´s production was generally sympathetic but she jumped the gun when she allowed the characters to have amorous approaches too early in the game: you can´t close Act I with a clinch that should happen in the Second! No matter, the whole thing was quite agreeable and well acted, with fine costumes by María Jaunarena and adequate stage designs by Daniel Feijóo.
The singing in the second cast was dominated by the Fiordiligi of Macarena Valenzuela, stunning to see and mostly to hear. Lara Mauro was a good Dorabella and Laura Penchi an overactive Despina, but she sang quite nicely. The boys were rather green, tenor Patricio Oliveira and baritone Juan Feico are promising but still have some way to go. Oreste Chlopecki acted with a fine sense of comedy as Don Alfonso and sang with a dark voice well handled.