(Ensemble Serse, Grosvenor Chapel, London, 25 April 2015)
I know what you’re thinking. Serse again?! But no: fear not. No Xerxes today: instead I’m rather belatedly posting about Ensemble Serse, a London-based company of young musicians and singers who specialise in ambitious resurrections of Baroque opera. Their mission statement is to offer a musical experience that’s as close as possible to what an 18th-century audience might have heard. That means no cuts, all possible cadenzas and a take-no-prisoners attitude to singing.
In the last few years their projects have included revivals of Jommelli’s Didone, Hasse’s Lucio Papirio Dittatore, Hasse’s Cajo Fabricio, Hasse’s 1733 Siroe, Vinci’s Medo and, of particular interest to me, Hasse’s Artaserse. I’d previously been to a couple of their concerts; but this concert production of Gluck’s Antigono was my first encounter with a full-on Ensemble Serse opera. The opera was first performed in 1756 but it was based on a libretto from 1744 and it’s classic Metastasio. The Egyptian princess Berenice is betrothed to Antigono, king of Macedonia but, as their wedding draws closer she finds herself increasingly troubled by her feelings for Antigono’s son Demetrio. For his part, Demetrio is desperately in love with his father’s promised bride but has been fighting against his emotions with all the high-minded, self-sacrificing nobility of your average Metastasian hero. That hasn’t prevented his jealous father banishing him from the city: an order that, under the circumstances, Demetrio chooses to defy.
And that’s because, as the opera opens, danger is in the air. The romantic tribulations of this central trio are overshadowed by the approach of the triumphant army of Alessandro of Epirus, who is set on adding Macedonia to his empire. As Antigono agonises over whether or not to flee, Alessandro makes an offer that really puts the cat among the pigeons: his army will stand down if he is given Berenice for his wife. This comes as particularly unpleasant news to Antigono’s daughter Ismene who, as far as she knew, was meant to be marrying Alessandro herself. As the two kings square off against each other, Berenice is caught in an impossible situation, and the competing demands of duty, love and political expediency threaten to push the characters to their very limits.
The singing was very good overall and, in a cast of four countertenors*, one soprano and a tenor, there was plenty to absorb. That was especially the case because Ensemble Serse’s original-practices approach led to some interesting cross-gender casting, with Berenice and Ismene sung by men and Demetrio by a woman. One general point I would make is that, as part of their quest to recreate an 18th-century ambiance, Ensemble Serse also aim to replicate what they call the histrionic ‘bad habits’ of the original singers. While I can understand the historical interest of doing this, I confess that as a concert-goer I don’t really enjoy it and would prefer a more toned-down modern approach. Nevertheless, there was lots to enjoy.
As Ismene, Jorg Delfos had a light and pure voice (I’d go so far as to call it ‘pretty’), which made an interesting case for gender-blind casting. If one thinks about casting a voice – and I’m fully aware this probably applies more to recordings, where physical mimesis isn’t so much of an issue – then it should be the voice that best suits the role, regardless of whether it’s male or female. Delfos’s tone, with its light and agile high notes, was a perfect match for the naively lovelorn princess. Calvin Wells, the Ensemble’s artistic director, took on the formidable role of Berenice, at the heart of the storm: his mad scene in Act 3, delivered with furious élan in a rather fabulous kimono, was certainly memorable, with some notes pushed up to incredible heights. Personally, however, I preferred him in a quieter moment: his rendition of Basta così, in which Berenice decides to sacrifice her own happiness to save Antigono, was full of poignant dignity.
His Demetrio was sung by Milena Dobrzycka, who had the unenviable task of tackling some of the most virtuosic arias in the opera with some bell-like high notes. Her voice was pleasant and sparkling, with impressive control, but there were points where it was evident that she was having to work at it. Considering the technical challenges of the music, that’s no great surprise; and the key thing is that Dobrzycka nobly stepped in a very late stage and, so I’ve heard, learned the role in a week. Considering what she had to handle, that’s pretty astonishing.
Clearco, Alessandro’s sidekick, was the only character (poor chap) who wasn’t caught up in a romantic intrigue. He was sung by Tom Verney, whom I saw in one of the Ensemble’s concerts earlier this year (Hasse’s Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra) and was glad to hear again: his singing was refined, crisp and clear of tone, albeit occasionally slightly muffled underneath the energetic orchestra. A little bit more force and drama behind it would make all the difference. As the sole tenor, Simon Gfeller’s Antigono quickly made a fine impression: his light voice could adopt a lot of colours, from gentle to severe, and I particularly liked his aria È la beltà del Cielo, in which this (presumably) middle-aged king sounded as enamoured as a young lover. But perhaps his most splendid moment was Tu m’involasti un Regno, in which Antigono defiantly resists his conqueror. He put a great deal into this performance, backed up by plentiful horns and a frenzied accompaniment from Gregory Batsleer on the harpsichord, and it was very enjoyable. His acting was also very strong and that was a good thing, because he spent a lot of time sharing a stage with the inimitable Alessandro, played with effervescent verve by Michael Taylor.
As regular readers will know, I have a weakness for swaggering in all its forms, and Taylor’s bright, deft voice happily fenced its way through some challenging arias, most notably (for me) Meglio rifletti al dono, in which he tries to persuade Berenice into his arms. There was a very nice sweeping cadenza here as well as some pretty crazy vocal hopping around and I savoured every second of it. It also looked as though Taylor hadn’t had the memo about this not being staged. From the second he got up from his chair he was firing on all cylinders, throwing imperious looks around the stage, reacting extravagantly to other characters’ recitatives and striking Lord-Flashheart-style poses with hand on hip. By the end I was giggling every time he came on stage, even before he did anything.
I was surprised to find so full an orchestra in this little church, and the size of the band made for a rich and very dramatic rendition of the music which left both me and my friend feeling that we’d rather underestimated Gluck. Conducted with dynamism by Batsleer, the musicians kept things bowling along at a good pace (with the odd stray horn here and there), and I was delighted by the drums and trumpets which were used in so many of the arias. Believe me: arias are always better with drums and trumpets. There was also a gorgeous cello solo from Anthony Albrecht (which I understand was improvised, which I just find incredible), a drum solo from Barnaby Archer (fantastically martial) and a hauntingly beautiful oboe solo from Leo Duarte (at the start of the aria sung by Demetrio which Gluck later transformed into Che puro ciel in his Orfeo).
In the interests of full transparency, I’m not as completely detached from this production as I normally am from the operas I see, although I hope I’ve written this post with the usual levels of honesty and criticism. I’ve had the privilege of being able to hear about Antigono’s development during the past few months (though I am not associated with them in any way) and it’s been immensely interesting, as well as rather daunting, to see just how much work goes into one night’s performance. Much of that work was down to Wells himself, who transcribed and transposed the entire opera from its original score, added in the drums and trumpets which made the arias so dramatic, wrote the cadenzas, wrote the programme and assembled the singers and musicians. The programme is worth noting on its own, in fact, because it not only contains the entire libretto (including the preface and dedications) with an English translation, but also biographies of Metastasio and Gluck, an essay on the castrati and en travesti roles in 18th-century opera, notes on theatrical practice in the 18th century, a discussion of how Ensemble Serse adapted the opera, synopses in two levels of detail and biographies not only of the present cast and musicians, but also biographies of the original cast. It’s quite a feat.
Overall it was a great event put on by a creative young team, and I was just sorry that there weren’t more people in the audience to enjoy it. It wasn’t flawless, but it was presented with passion, dedication and real enthusiasm. It’s very exciting to have young ensembles like this in London who are tackling such ambitious projects; and I hope that, if Ensemble Serse continue to unearth these ‘forgotten’ operas, they’ll find a way to expand their marketing to get themselves better known. (And don’t be put off by the prospect of a five-long-hour opera. Antigono was only four hours and it whisked by. And, if people are perfectly happy to spend five hours listening to Wagner, why not give Gluck or one of his contemporaries a go?)
* I know that some of the singers prefer to describe themselves as soprano or alto rather than countertenor, but I’m just sticking with the usual parlance of the blog to avoid confusion.