Profile: Ensemble Serse
by Antony Lias

The operas of Handel did however, make a tentative return in 1920s Germany with the Göttingen Handel Festival. But it wasn’t until the pioneering efforts of Joan Sutherland, Janet Baker, Charles Farncombe, Adrian Boult and others from the 1950s and 1960s, who championed the revival of many of his operas, that interest was really stimulated, even if the germination of the ideas of “period” and “authentic” performances were exploited and developed principally in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Handel’s contemporaries who had vanished almost without a trace, continued to exist only on the fringes of musicological research, occasionally re-surfacing with decidedly unimpressive results (due primarily to the performance, rather than the opera itself). Luckily, the burgeoning interest in baroque opera has now extended to the disinterment of the works of Vivaldi, Vinci, Hasse, Porpora, Vinci, Leo and Keiser to name but a few.

Rather than traverse what is now the familiar operas of the period, Ensemble Serse have been busy championing the revival of some of the most influential and popular works of the 18th century, including Marco Attilio Regolo by Scarlatti, Il Siroe by Hasse and this November, Artaserse by the same composer. What all of these operas have in common, aside from some wonderful melodies, turbo charged coloratura and dramatic recitatives, is the opportunity to revel in the unbounded luxury of the human voice, by enabling contemporary singers to take their inspiration from the most famous names of the period. Hasse’s Artaserse featured possibly the most celebrated singer in history, the soprano castrato Farinelli, who sang the fearsomely demanding role of Arbace. The role of Artabano was first performed by the alto castrato Nicolini, but was later performed in London by Senesino. Add to this the great Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, as Mandane and you have an idea about the calibre of singer available to Hasse at the time. Naturally the music is extremely challenging for both the singers and the orchestra, who as always in Ensemble Serse performances, play on period instruments.

A further important aspect of the pioneering work of Ensemble Serse, is their total commitment to performing these challenging operas as complete as possible. Often or not, we invariably hear performances of baroque opera which have been surgically dissected with more concern for the posterior of the audience member and the vocal possibilities of the cast in question, rather than for the wishes of the composer, or for the original performance tradition. With considerable musicological research undertaken by Calvin Wells (artistic director and male soprano) and Christopher Suckling (music director), we can be assured that the score will not be butchered, and that the cast will be challenged to emulate the great achievements of their predecessors, with inventive ornamentation and elaborate cadenzas abounding.

Risking contradiction, I will go out on a limb and say that it is exceptionally unlikely that London audiences have ever been presented with performances of the opera Artaserse by two different composers at the same time. The Royal Opera are staging Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes at the Linbury from the 30th October until the 14th November, whilst Ensemble Serse are presenting Hasse’s Artaserse on the 7th November at St Giles Church. Aside from the subject matter, both operas could not be more different, with I suspect, Hasse’s proving to be the more interesting of the two, with some extraordinary vocal and ensemble writing. Hasse’s opera is also intimately connected with the London debut of Farinelli, when famously during the opera’s performance at the King's Theatre, the great alto castrato Senesino collapsed into Farinelli’s arms, having been overwhelmed by this most extraordinary of voices.

Meeting with Calvin Wells and Christopher Suckling, it was clear that here were two very enthusiastic and talented musicians exploring the forgotten by-ways of 18th century vocal music. When asked why he formed Ensemble Serse back in 2006, Calvin responded: “Well the main reason for forming the ensemble was not only to rediscover these neglected masterpieces, which is of course our main focus, but also to give young singers and musicians a platform for greater exposure, to develop their performing experience and to gain a feeling for these works by helping to introduce them to a modern audience”. Christopher then added: “What is curious about these works is that they were the barnstormers of their day. People went to hear them so as to be entertained, but they have become neglected within the canon. It makes you think why have these works been neglected, why have Handel’s works survived? When we sit down and look at the music we realize that one of the reasons why these works are not really performed today is that the vocal techniques and the style of singing required in order to bring these works to life, are considerably different from a lot of other operas. On paper Hasse is a great songsmith, he sets up some wonderful tunes, but there isn’t necessarily that much there. What it takes is the genius of Farinelli, Faustina and so on, which he had on tap all the time, and from which he could take his inspiration and then turn them into masterworks, but people just don’t sing like that anymore. Therefore part of the ethos of the ensemble is about rediscovering these vocal styles, ways of singing, and ways of accompanying.”

Naturally a big challenge for the ensemble is finding an audience for a style of singing and performance, which is all but alien to today’s opera and concert-goer. Calvin’s response was to say that: “This is always going to be a challenge, but what we have noticed is that when we presented our second opera, Hasse’s Il Siroe, our attendance figures almost doubled! It seems that word of mouth has been making its way throughout the early music community, which is the only way to explain the increased interest. We are expecting an even bigger audience this time for the Artaserse, so the interest in these works is really beginning to grow. We are also very aware that we are in effect creating an audience, which is really interesting. I think that the development in music has to a certain extent reached a conclusion, an end point, it has gone as far as it possibly can, so people are now developing an interest in the unperformed works of the past, for which the baroque period presents a huge number of possibilities.”

I then asked Calvin what a potential attendee can expect to see or to hear at this upcoming performance?: “Well to start with fantastic music. What makes Hasse different from Handel, is that unlike Handel, Hasse had a star for almost every role. Even the small roles are given huge arias, for example Laodice in Il Siroe dramatically does nothing, but in Act II she gets this absolutely monster aria, with about 10 minutes of coloratura! The audience can also expect to see people who are extremely passionate about what we are trying to do. Our whole ensemble, especially its leader, Oliver Webber and harpsichordist Erik Dippenaar (a rising star in the music world), are all highly experienced early music performers, with a passion for exploring the forgotten works of Hasse and other composers. The singers come from a variety of backgrounds, including some who mostly sing Wagner! What’s also interesting is that I believe that singers like Farinelli and Cuzzoni, possessed not only big voices, but also sang with considerably more vibrato than we have been led to believe. There is historical criticism from the time which emphatically refers to Carestini singing with pronounced vibrato and Cuzzoni with tempo rubato. Consequently Christopher and I like healthy singers, with a healthy vibrato. I’m not advocating a Wagnerian wobble or anything at all like that! What we look for are singers like Carolyn Sampson, who sing with just the right amount for this style of music.”

Of course, performance tradition dictates that the use of arie di baule (trunk arias) in operas from this period, was very much the norm, and in fact expected. Calvin commented that: “We have decided to insert some additional arias, including from Graun’s Artaserse, as this was the traditional performance practice of the day, but it is of course important that these selections are well integrated into the drama.”

I asked Calvin and Christopher about their future plans for the ensemble. Christopher said that: “Projects for the next few years include, hopefully, a recording of highlights from Hasse’s Il Siroe. Also, we are going to begin work on a mixture of projects. Each year we put on a new opera, and in 2010 we are looking to perform Vinci’s Catone in Utica.” Calvin interjected and added: “It’s a fascinating work, it was written for Rome and scandalized audiences at the time, with Catone dying on stage. This is going to be our biggest project so far, and as a result we are going to have to increase the size of the band. We will also be performing Handel’s ground-breaking cantata for Prince Ruspoli (Rome 1707), Aminta e Fillide, which should be much better known than it is.”

I then asked Christopher just how they go about casting such roles, and whether there ought to be a preference for casting a countertenor or a male soprano, in a castrato role?: “Firstly we consider the role itself, then how it looks on paper, and then finally both of these points in conjunction with the singers which are potentially available. This gives us an initial picture about what sort of sound and what sort of character we can expect. From this we then consider the dramatic reasons about whether we should be using a male or female singer in the role. We then have to come up with a situation whereby a role works both vocally and dramatically with the singers available. Whatever the outcome is, we cast the best person for that role. If the best person is a countertenor, then we cast a countertenor, if it is a mezzo, then we cast a mezzo. It’s not about personal preference for any one voice type over another, but it is about making the “fit” ideal, so that you can achieve the best possible musical and dramatic production.”

Calvin gave the final, and for me, the most convincing and exciting reason why opera-goers who have dipped their toes into Handel, should now branch out and consider some of the other great masterpieces of the 17th and 18th centuries: “Sometimes people are afraid of this music, because they think the approach to the performance will be very precious. But we don’t perform it that way, we encourage the use of vibrato, so that you could be forgiven for thinking it was composed by Mascagni!”