“…a night in counter-tenor heaven…Daredevil artistry brings Handel’s tragi-comedy to life

What a scrumptious spread of musical virtuosity the Barbican has laid on with the aid of its international guests this week. A couple of days after the Australian Chamber Orchestra conquered Milton Court, the ace Baroque ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro stormed the main hall with this concert performance of Handel’s farewell opera, Serse. Yes, it sounds deplorably old-fashioned to treat Handel’s musical dramas – Georgian-style – merely as the showground for vocal pyrotechnics. But the high-wire artistry of Argentinian counter-tenor Franco Fagioli, in the title role, could never count as simply some first-among-equals contribution to the team. The whole side, beyond doubt, sang on top form. Fagioli, though, is something else again. The full-spectrum tantrum of his final aria (“Crude furie degli ‘orridi abissi”) became a quite spectacular hissy-fit. It climbed in a trice from near-baritone depths to stratospheric top notes, hit and kept with an almost contemptuous command.

Handel wrote Serse in 1738 for Caffarelli – along with Farinelli, one of the pair of superstar castrati who stunned and seduced mid-18th century Europe with the scope and heft of their uncanny sound. Given the paucity of counter-tenors with the sheer horsepower to meet this role’s demands, the part of the petulant Persian emperor regularly falls to women as a breeches role. To hear a dramatic counter-tenor with Fagioli’s gifts scale its heights and depths, however, is to sense the frisson of almost diabolical delight that swooning fans of the great castrati might have felt. When reviewing the ENO’s Porgy and Bess recently, I wondered which other operas start with such a performer-taxing coup as Gershwin’s, as it kicks off straight into “Summertime”. One answer, of course, is Serse. Right after the overture, and a touch of recitative, Handel has the Persian ruler Serse halt on his campaign to conquer Europe and praise a sheltering plane tree with “Ombra mai fù”.

From the controlled crescendo of his opening note, creamily smooth but never dragging or cloying in the vein of some Handel recitalists, Fagioli declared his intent. Concert performance or not, he acted Serse, and never failed to bring out the comic bombast that Handel often channels into the high-handed king’s music. For Zarathustra’s sake: the great general is apostrophising a plane tree! It’s meant to look absurd. Somehow, as in this aria, Handel takes farcical or melodramatic moments – of which Serse has plenty – and loads them with a musical grace and tenderness that seems to belong on another, higher, plane of being.

This serio-comic mismatch between convoluted stage business and the soaring glories of the score creates a challenge for any concert version. Even with limited dramatic resources, Serse needs the sparkle of theatre to bring out its chiaroscuro contrasts. In this case, Il Pomo d’Oro’s players sat centre-stage, directed from the harpsichord by their brilliant young chief Maxim Emelyanychev, while the soloists walked on and off to sing their pieces up-front. Sometimes this slowed the pace. Serse’s moods must shift between light and shadow at a quicksilver lick as the Persian king, that ultimate entitled alpha-male, plots to forsake his Egyptian betrothed Amastre and steal the long-suffering Romilda from her fiancé, Serse’s brother Arsamene. Why? Because he can. At some point, I would love to see a frankly post-#MeToo production of Serse, with the casually controlling, and intimidating, king played as a fawned-over, harassment-addicted film director, cabinet minister – or maybe even retail tycoon?

Serse may be a bully, but he’s also an idiot. As flexible in his gestures as his stupendous voice, Fagioli fully inhabited the role. From his first major aria, “Più che penso alle fiamme”, his quivering, quavering outrage hinted at the adolescent, foot-stamping wilfulness that partners his brute coercive force. The past generation has witnessed a gratifying harvest of world-class counter-tenors. Still, it’s hard to think of another one who combines such dramatic agility and resourcefulness as a singing actor with a vocal range deployed with unstrained assurance over such broad sonic acres. The coloratura swoops, leaps and runs of his aria “Se bramate d’amar” – which closed the first half at the Barbican – crackle around more pensive, yearning passages. These require a restrained stamina and steadiness. Fagioli covered every stylistic base with unerring authority.”

The Arts Desk