This 2012 production of Handel’s tuneful opera is one of the KOB’s recent blockbusters.
Stefan Herheim, the Norwegian-born director who has left his distinctive stamp on many European stages in a mere few years, makes Serse stand head and shoulders above the houses’ previous forays into baroque opera. Herheim shows a keen wit and sharp intelligence that seemed to infect the committed singers and musicians alike. Like his 2009 Lohengrin at the Staatsoper, there is much humor and even pranksterish behavior. But this is tempered by an ironic elegance that saved the evening from ever devolving into ridiculousness. In opera, being playful runs the risk of embracing wholesale absurdity. (To borrow a quote from the film This is Spinal Tap: there’s a fine line between clever and stupid.) Herheim is a master at this balancing act. With Serse, he embraces the sublime mixture of seria and buffo elements that puzzled the work’s original London audience in 1738 and partially accounted for its virtual disappearance for nearly 200 years.
Herheim’s overarching concept is a mise en abyme. Two main sets are visible at various angles of the frequently rotating stage: the first shows a versatile stage (with a descending curtain and proscenium arch) that is decked-out with hand painted backdrops for every conceivable occasion. The overall aesthetic could be described as storybook commedia dell’arte. The reverse side of the set depicted a spacious and mostly bare backstage area. The characters transition easily between these two worlds, adopting a self-consciously theatrical bearing when on the stage-within-a-stage. It isn’t a terribly original idea; but his singers move so determinedly and seamlessly between the two levels of the production’s reality (which mirror, to a point, the libretto’s mixture of humor and gravitas), that the concept never wore thin. Indeed, Herheim had so many dramatically exciting ideas up his sleeve, that the production seems to be powered on its own joyous energy. The singers go nimbly about a variety of mock-heroics, well-timed slapstick and sporadic interactions with the orchestra.