We caught up with super-star mezzo Anna Stephany as she prepares for our performance of Handel’s Serse next month. Anna plays the pompous Persian king Xerxes (Serse), whose character swings from swooning to rage-filled within a page of music. She can be heard in this role on our (ahem) award-winning 3-CD set, and at our performance at St John’s Smith Square on Friday 18 November.
What do you particularly enjoy about singing Handel’s music?
Handel really is my favourite thing to sing. I love the symmetry of the music, the pulse, the rhythm, the fluid way he writes for the voice, the way the shape of each phrase expresses perfectly the emotion hidden within it. There is no doubt about it, Handel gives us a gift on every page! But, Handel also makes us work hard. Often I have to invent my own narrative within the aria as the text is repetitive and there is the added challenge of making sense of the da capo. I like this challenge and if I’m well acquainted with the character then the da capo is an opportunity to explore further, with the help of nearly always tasteful embellishments (!), what is going inside his mind.
When did you first perform the opera?
Serse is a funny old fellow and the role is an enjoyable one to tackle. I first got to know Serse when I was at the National Opera Studio, back in 2005. Our show of opera scenes at the Hackney Empire opened onto a simple set of a tree-like structure with me sitting atop it. It wasn’t a particular easy thing to do, climbing down whilst singing, so I learnt early on that opera is not just about the singing but about being agile on stage as well!
Our recording in 2012 was hugely enjoyable and Christian’s infectious energy and sublime musicianship made it easy to bring Serse to life. I am thrilled to be performing this opera with Christian and his EOC once again!
How do we hear the character of Serse? Any ‘best bits’?
Serse is proud and pompous and gets what he wants but to me he is also hugely likeable. Despite behaving like an idiot throughout most of the opera, he shows a very sensitive side when he sings about the beauty of a tree outside his window in the famous and memorable ‘Largo’, which comes right at the beginning of the opera. In the aria ‘Piu che penso‘, although he is prematurely and rather arrogantly celebrating his love for Romilda, the music is exquisite and we are led to hope that he might have some real feelings of love hidden somewhere inside! His last aria ‘Crudie furie‘ is a spectacular and thrilling vent of frustration, when he realises that the bumbling Ariodate has messed up once again and that his beloved Romilda has finally married Arsamenes. Serse recovers quickly enough, so we do wonder how genuine his love for Romilda really was, but nevertheless, because of the very human hopes and frustrations that he displays, Serse remains loveable to me!
Where can we hear this loveable despot?
Friday 18 November, 7.00pm at St John’s Smith Square, London SW1P 3HA. Book now!