A great initiative by Swedish mezzo-soprano Malena Ernman: she has decided to produce (i.e. fund) an opera by herself, without sponsors, without grants or investors, relying only on the ticket sales, like 200 years ago. I hope she won’t go bankrupt, but, in any case, she’s showing a lot of chutzpah. The opera is performed not in a theatre, but sort of in a big hall, which actually has a better acoustic than you would think at first sight. The stage is made up of boards in the shape of desert dunes, and the only thing on stage is a tree (of course, otherwise what would Serse address in Ombra mai fu?). No chorus (to save money?) so the two choral bits are done the first by the soloists themselves, and the second one by the orchestra (!). The acting is very exaggerated, but extremely funny.
Now, to the music.
The orchestra was AMAZING. It was the Ensemble Matheus, directed by Spinosi, and they are an extremely capable baroque orchestra. The musical direction was brilliant, superb variations in the repeats, sophisticated details, unexpected pianissimi. When the singers were jumping too much on stage for my taste, I would concentrate on the orchestra, and it was a delight. Special mention for the cello, a superb continuo.
Malena Ernman was, of course, Xerxes. This woman can sing Haendel: her coloratura is very precise and explosive, beautiful. She had some uncertainties on the intonations on the long notes, attacking them a bit flat, and then finding the right pitch in the “messa di voce” (I counted 3 instances). I expected better from her, but I am very picky. She is an extremely good actress; her Xerxes is a psychopath, narcissistic and utterly self-centered. Irresistible.
Arsamene, Xerxes’ brother and his rival, was the countertenor David Hansen. His voice is very smooth, without the harshness and excessive metal of many countertenors, but it lacks projection, it sounds like he’s singing into a box. His lament aria in the second act was beautiful.
Romilda and Atalanta, the two sisters, were the sopranos Hanna Husáhr and Kerstin Avemo, similar voices, their technique is not flawless, but they came through. The bass Jakob Zethner was their father Ariodate, the usual screaming bass with very little support.
Xerses’ abandoned fiancée Amastre was sung by Ivonne Fuchs, a contralto I liked a lot, better technique and good interpretation.
Elviro was the baritone Loa Falkman, who is a celebrity here in Sweden, because he’s been in pop music competitions, movies, and such. He’s a stage animal, very, very funny, if not a great singer.
I think this experiment is extremely interesting, an opera with no external funding, neither public nor private. Maybe things like these can help opera be more present in the cultural life, and gain a more widespread audience.