Nano Note:
Degl’orridi abissi


Right before the end of the opera that bears his name, Handel’s Xerxes — Serse, in Italian — sings an aria that I like a whole heck of a lot more than the very famous one with which he opens the so-called comedy. That would be “Ombra mai fu,” almost certainly the one number from Handel’s catalogue that’s up there with such Verdi hits as “La donna è mobile.” Everybody knows the tune, even if nobody has ever heard it sung. But, as I say, I like Xerxes’s last aria, “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi,” much better. The famous aria is wonderfully stately and all that, but “Crude furie” scores a perfect ten as a ridiculous temper tantrum. What could be more operatic than a comically-presented temper tantrum?

Mozart’s entry in this field, “Smanie implacabili,” from Così fan tutte, is the reigning masterpiece, and, as with Handel’s aria, the joke lies in the the orchestral commentary. Mozart scores Dorabella’s grandiotically despairing plea to the furies with a wallpaper of sweet Bronx cheers. Handel is a bit simpler: his violins mock Xerxes’s clueless tirade with cheekily swooping scales. Up and down they run, and they’d make you seasick if they didn’t have your eyes rolling. The eye-rolling is what I love about the aria; it gives me a clear and distinct idea of what Kathleen must be thinking while I storm about the apartment in search of a misplaced Book Review.

Although I know Così fan tutte as well as I know my own name, however, you mustn’t think that I’m a scholar of Handel operas. So not! But I came to listen to Serse and Rodelina a thousand years ago thanks to the Brian Priestman recordings on Westminster. As I recall, Canadian mezzo Maureen Forrester sang the title role in Serse, and I hope that I’ll be able to recapture her performance on CD (or MP3) one of these days. For the record, this marks the first time that I’ve ever thought that somebody did a better job than Anne-Sofie von Otter. But it’s early days; I only listened to the new recording for the first time yesterday.

I played “Crude furie” seven times in a row, steadily increasing the volume each time. There was nothing else in the world that I wanted to listen to while this state of play lasted.

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