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Serse at Maryland Opera Studio

Countertenor Christopher Newcomer (Xerxes) and his little tree in Handel's Serse, Maryland Opera Studio, 2009 (photo by Cory Weaver)
This month the musical world is celebrating a major anniversary for Handel, an event observed this month by Maryland Opera Studio with a production of the composer's Serse, which was premiered in London on April 15, 1738. The absurd libretto, such as it is, is a mixture of comic and supposedly serious, mangled by an anonymous hand from libretti of previous operas. The action is set in the fifth century B.C., during the military campaign of the Persian despot Xerxes into Greece. As recounted by Herodotus (Book 7), whose sympathy to the Greek side of the story should be taken into account, Xerxes's campaign was halted by the unruly Hellespont crossing, where insufficiently stable bridges prevented the forward movement of his army. Herodotus focuses on the megalomaniacal eccentricity of Xerxes, who so admires an oriental plane tree he comes across -- a grand tree of massive trunk and broad, leafy branches, wholly unlike the puny potted orange tree that takes its place in this production -- that he decorates it with gold and appoints a guardian over it, an office that is to be handed down to a successor in perpetuity. Handel's opera opens with Serse singing one of the most famous arias ever penned, Ombra mai fù, to that plane tree.

Handel's Serse:
available at Amazon
P. Rasmussen, I. Bayrakdarian, S. Piau, A. Hallenberg, Les Talens Lyriques, C. Rousset
(DVD -- $26.99)

available at Amazon
A. S. von Otter, S. Piau, L. Zazzo, Les Arts Florissants, W. Christie
(CD -- $29.49)

Online score:
Serse (HWV 40)
Angered by the uncooperative winds and waters of the Hellespont, Xerxes ordered his soldiers to bind it (by casting shackles into the water), beat it with a lash, and even brand it with an iron. The "bridge" that he eventually constructs is made mostly of his navy's ships lashed together across the span. Director Nick Olcott has updated the action to the recent colonial past, with Xerxes in a European dress military uniform, as if he were the area's British Royal Administrator, while Xerxes' actual betrothed, Amastre, is disguised in a khaki Australian regimental uniform with cocked hat, and Ariodate, the father of the woman Xerxes is trying to marry, appears in a British pith helmet like a modest major-general. It is hard to see how the theme of foreign domination could be relevant, since the Greeks Xerxes is going to attack are not even mentioned.

Although Handel created the role of Serse for Caffarelli, a soprano castrato, its high-sitting arias are frequently given to a high female voice or transposed down for either a mezzo-soprano or an alto countertenor. The justification for a male or female voice should always come down to musical considerations, rather than the dramatic preference for a male singer over a trousered woman. This production cast countertenor Christopher Newcomer in the role, which was a bit too much of a reach, its heights leading him to sound rather forced and shrill, often bending out of tune, as heard on Wednesday night. The voice struck my ear as modeled too much on that of David Daniels, more sharp than rounded. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast was also mostly lackluster, not necessarily below expectations for a collegiate production but definitely in need of some more finishing. High points came in the buffo roles, the bumbling servant Elviro, played by bass Andrew Adelsberger (a student of François Loup), who was hilarious in falsetto and en travesti as a flower girl, and the scheming sister of Onyu Park's Atalanta. Ms. Park stood out for the brilliance of her ornamentation and for having the best Italian pronunciation among a cast that sounded disappointingly unpolished and very American (Park studied first in Germany and has more training behind her).

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Maryland Opera Studio offers lively staging of Handel's 'Serse' (Clef Notes, April 21)

Joan Reinthaler, Two Early Works in Capable Young Hands (Washington Post, April 20)
With fewer recitatives and da capo repeats, Handel made the opera flow more dramatically, which a few cuts in this production -- the choral numbers in Act I, maybe some of the recitatives (I think it was about 20 minutes shorter than a complete performance) -- as well as reshaping three acts into two, to have only one intermission. The choice of conductor, Kenneth Slowik (he also accompanied the recitatives), was a good one, and he did his best to keep things moving, in spite of lots of unclean intonation and poor coordination among the strings. The scoring and articulation were largely unvaried, creating an orchestral sameness that ran through most of the evening, with a few accents, mostly nice from a pair of oboes and a bassoon, generally sub-par from the pair of recorders. Creating some room here and there for the theorbo, which was practically inaudible [in fact, not in the pit, although listed in the program! -- Ed.], could break up the monotony. There is no substitute for having a more experienced conductor, especially when combined with a fully formed ensemble over which he is the established leader. Handel's operas have come a long way, but at the moment, the best results still come from leaving them to the specialists.

Handel's Serse will be repeated tonight (April 24, 7:30 pm) and Sunday afternoon (April 26, 3 pm), at the Clarice Smith Center in College Park.


Anonymous said...

You might also consider linking the highly positive review from the Washington Post. I must say I wonder why an experienced arts blogger such as yourself has to say such negative things about a student production. Perhaps I am biased as a Maryland student, but I could not help but hear the enthusiastic applause and cheering for the whole cast. Obviously the majority of the audience thought that these "lackluster" students were entertaining. Consider the context for the performances you review. Students will obviously need polishing. Holding them to the standards of professionals is silly.

Charles T. Downey said...

Glad to provide the link. FYI, even Joan Reinthaler in the Post calls Maryland Opera Studio a "professional training ground," which it is, isn't it? Is the aim something other than a professional standard? Furthermore, I was making a concession for this being a student production by mentioning cast members by name (other than the title role) only with positive comments.

Besides if phrases like "made the most of" and "solid, occasionally inspired" really strike you as highly positive, then you are reading Joan's review differently than I did.