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HANDEL: Serse

Forrester, Popp, Lehane, Miller, Tyler; Hemsley, Brannigan; Vienna Academy Chorus, Vienna Radio Orchestra, Priestman. Text and translation. Deutsche Grammophon CD 477 8339 (3)

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Deutsche Grammophon has delved into its vaults to reissue the very first "complete" studio recording of Handel's Serse. (Absent are one recitative and the B section of Serse's aria "Più che penso," crossed out in Handel's autograph score.) Recorded in 1965 and originally issued on the Westminster label, this fine performance has never been available on CD, nor has it previously been issued complete on LP outside of the United States. Its return to the catalogue is most welcome.

Maureen Forrester's rich, lustrous tone brings an ideal gravity to the role of Serse that aurally distinguishes her from the rest of the cast. While a high note may occasionally present a challenge that is not entirely surmounted, the Canadian contralto's musicianship, vocal power and ability to spin out amazingly long phrases always win the day.

It is pure joy to hear Lucia Popp's girlish Romilda, recorded at the beginning of her career and just a year after her triumphant Queen of the Night for Klemperer on EMI. Her voice is fresh, effortlessly produced and used with the sensitivity and musicality that would always characterize her singing. Melismatic passages, such as those found in "Se l'idol mio," are rendered flawlessly and with deceptive ease, and her singing is completely free of the "note squeezing" mannerism she would later develop. Marilyn Tyler is superb as Romilda's sister Atalanta, her dusky soprano providing a clear contrast to Popp's gleaming tone, and she exhibits an impressive range up to a brilliantly finessed high D in the final cadenza of "Voi mi dite." Distinguished vocal contributions also come from Maureen Lehane as Arsamene, particularly impressive in rapid-fire coloratura, and Mildred Miller as the perpetually disguised Amastre. Thomas Hemsley and Owen Brannigan are satisfactory as Ariodate and Elviro, respectively. Conductor Brian Priestman's tempos seem spot-on throughout the work, and he leads the Vienna Radio Orchestra - playing on modern instruments - in a surprisingly stylish performance for this vintage. Martin Isepp's harpsichord riffs are inventive and always enjoyable, if occasionally rather amusingly over the top.

The stereo sound, newly remastered from original master tapes, is mostly superb, with plentiful orchestral detail and a robust lower range, although occasionally some very mild distortion dims the brilliance of the higher frequencies. The wide soundstage employed suggests character movement, and several sound effects are used to add further theatricality. (The Act II thunder effect is successful, but the subsequent "swordfight" is hopelessly silly.) Popp's angelic offstage singing at the beginning of the opera is beautifully realized, with a glowing aura of ambience surrounding the voice. It is totally believable that Serse could fall in love with Romilda at first listen - just as one will probably fall in love with the many charms of this performance.

DEREK GRETEN-HARRISON

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