In a climate of crises and cuts, how glorious that a Baroque formation has been created in Italy. Coin du Roi opened their first season, which consists of three titles, with Handel's Serse in Milan. The work was last seen in the city in 1962 with a young cast consisting of Mirella Freni, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luigi Alva and Rolando Panerai. It was staged at the now inexistent Piccola Scala theatre where they had the forces of La Scala for the scenery and costumes and the theatre's reputation for attracting an audience. Coin du Roi is setting out alone, hoping for sponsors and to cultivate a reputation. They have produced an elegant brochure that proclaims the group's ideals and aims and a chic programme explaining the concept behind the design and direction… then the curtain opened at Teatro Litta.
At the end of the day, fine words and swishy graphics are forgotten and the opera performance is the thing that counts. Visually, this Serse was very poor indeed: lighting, costumes, sets. If your budget is small, there are many ways of getting round that. Use fewer scenic pieces and make sure that are both beautiful and well lit, not plastic potted plants and dodgy painting of flimsy constructions. Not many lights? Then go for dramatic; one lone spot in the darkness can produce a powerful image. Singers with little stage experience? Then keep them still. Stylised posing convinces far more than pacing up and down during an aria, examining the scenery and floor during introductions, and scuttling offstage as soon as the last note has been sung. Holding the stage is difficult, so help the poor singers with a few firm but simple rules.
Musically, however, things were fine. The Coin du Roi has assembled a strong group of young singers who deftly tackled Handel's trickiest passages, as did the orchestra under the baton of Christian Frattima who possesses a frightening Muti-esque scowl, but has a rigorous approach. Giorgio dal Monte on the harpsichord led the basso continuo, which was, interestingly, divided and placed on the left and right of the pit, giving a pleasing stereophonic effect. Chorus Master Marco Berrini's work with the Ars Cantica Choir produced an exciting sound from up in the theatre's gallery.
Lithuanian soprano Viktorija Bakan impressed vocally as Romilda and with her Kate Blanchett looks, she seemed happier on stage than others in the cast. Contralto Alessandra Visentin, as Almestre, has a rich tone and firm technique, though her voice was sometimes be overpowered by the orchestra and scenically she seemed ill at ease. Serse was played by another Lithuanian, Vilija Mikštaitė who was also a little uncomfortable in her man's suit, but she possesses a strong voice with a deep mezzo colour; she needs to work on her diction for the recitatives. American Jud Perry as Arsamene has a very pleasing countertenor voice, devoid of hooty upper notes, and at the other end of the spectrum was the virile tone of bass Stefano Cianci. Apart from Bakan, the two who knew exactly what they were doing onstage, as well as having fine voices, were the bubbly Arianna Stornello and Claudio Ottimo who brought with him a baggage of experience in buffo roles. He has all those traditional baritone tics, which, in some productions, might get a little too much, but here I suspect he was just trying to liven things up a little.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.