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This production is visually striking. The costumes look roughly nineteenth-century, with the men in military uniforms. Nearly everything is in shades of black, white, gray, silver and gold. There are a lot of steel bars – Serse’s plane tree, which is silver rather than green, is enclosed in a sort of indoor cage/greenhouse object, and many of the walls are geometrical grids of these bars, or are solid metal with rows of small square windows. It sounds prison-like, but it’s more science fiction than prison. There are a few outdoor scenes in which you get glimpses of the bright desert and empty sky outside.
As a result, there’s a feeling of focus to the production. There’s a lot of gray, but it isn’t grim. Visually, there’s plenty of contrast – e.g. in Act I, Romilda and Atalanta are wearing contrasting dresses, one black and one white, and in general there’s a lot of mixing of these two colors in the way everyone is dressed. You see plenty of gray sky through the windows of the various interiors. In the final scene, after Serse has burned the tree, the sky is pink. The feel of this is of a piece with the way the drama is pitched. It’s serious enough, but it’s far from stodgy and there are moments of humor – Romilda and Atalanta’s Così fan tutte-esque quarrel near the end of Act I, or Ariodate’s ecstatic skipping about when he finds out Serse will marry one of his daughters – ecstatic until his back tricks out on him.
More interesting are the moments when you’ve got a mix of the silly and the serious – Serse’s “Ombra mai fu” in Act I, or Amastre (Patricia Bardon)’s first aria as she dons her disguise as a young man, complete with fake mustache. (The production designers must have gotten a deal on a barrel of these things or something – Ann Hallenburg as Arsamene has one as well, although Arsamene’s is presumably not fake within the context of the story.)
And the music is playful too. In Act I, there is an aria about who, Serse or Arsamene, is going to tell Romilda that he loves her (it’s “io le dirò che l’amo / tu le dirai ch l’ami” and if you are not up on your Italian verbs and objects, it’s a nice little review) and the brothers divide it up: Serse gets the first half, and Arsamene the second. Similarly, there is a section near the beginning of Act II where Atalanta gives Serse a letter from Arsamene to Romilda which Atalanta claims is to Atalanta herself. Atalanta explains, falsely, what the letter is about in “dirà che amor per me,” and then there is a little recitative which Atalanta concludes with a reminder to Serse not to forget, Serse says “forget what?” and Atalanta launches into a recap of the aria. I liked it.
Tone is one of those things that I think it’s quite hard to really nail in an opera production – but it’s also one of those things where if you can project a kind of consistency of general impression, you can get away with all kinds of weird stuff. Or, more kindly to directors, if the production and the performances project a kind of consistency or emotional/musical wholeness, you have more room to muck about around the edges and be playful or weird or interesting. (Remember the Salzburg production of La Clamenza di Tito directed by Martin Kusej? Silly question! Who doesn’t remember that? But that is an example of a production that is really consistent and coherent as far as the big picture is concerned, enough that some of the weirder little bits don’t really undercut the rest of it.)
But there isn’t any of that kind of thing in this production of Serse. The staging is visually interesting and works with the general tenor of the performance – and that performance is pretty great.
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