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April 21, 2009

Maryland Opera Studio offers lively staging of Handel's 'Serse'

Maryland Opera StudioAn opera that starts with a monarch's love song to a tree might suggest something Monty Python-esque, but it makes perfect sense (well, maybe not quite perfect) in Handel's Serse, which combines comedy, romantic entanglements and melodic richness in abundance. UM's Maryland Opera Studio introduced an engaging production of Serse over the weekend at the Clarice Smith Center. Remaining performances are Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

The plot puts the historical Persian king Xerxes -- Serse in Italian -- into something of a sitcom with occasionally serious overtones. He’s betrothed to Amastre, but desires Romilda, who loves the king's brother, Arsamene, who is the unsought object of Atalanta’s affections. (If I were to boil it down for an entry in the Twitter opera plot contest, I guess I’d start with: King adores tree, but branches out.)

Director Nick Olcott gives the material a brisk, generally effective treatment and coaxes from the cast of colorfully costumed grad students a spirited ensemble effort within the appealing confines of Misha Kachman’s arborescently accented unit set.

On the vocal side, the results are always respectable -- in a few cases, much more than that.

Given the fortunate paucity of castrati today, roles originally written for those surgically altered vocalists of yore are assigned to mezzos or countertenors. In this case, one of the latter takes on the assignment of Serse -- Christopher Newcomer, who showed promise on Saturday night. When called on to project forcefully, the tone turned harsh and thin, but there was ...

enough roundness otherwise to suggest that Newcomer’s voice will develop nicely.

Onyu Park came close to stealing the whole production with her assured vocalism and winning comic touches as Atalanta. The soprano produced a warm, ripe tone with lots of nuance, and she embellished her arias brightly. She had competition in the scene-stealing department from Andrew Adelsberger, whose firm bass, clear articulation and vivid way with a phrase yielded consistent dividends as the ditsy servant Elviro.

Astrid Marshall, as Romilda, phrased stylishly, but her voice often had a constricted quality; it needed more bloom. Although Alexis Tantau, as Arsamene, made a pale impression at first, the mezzo’s singing gained in shading as the evening progressed and she delivered her aria at the close of Act 1 with considerable eloquence. Stephanie Sadownik did a lively turn as Amastre, though without quite enough tonal heft to go with it. Bass-baritone Stephen Brody offered sturdy vocal and theatrical contributions as Ariodate.

Giving the whole the production a classy boost was conductor Kenneth Slowik, whose tempos balanced propulsion and breathing room, and an excellent orchestra that reveled in the prismatic richness of Handel’s scoring.


Posted by Tim Smith at 3:53 PM | | Comments (8)


Has anyone heard about the Washington Opera Co. Coming to the Lyric? If so... is it true ? This would truly be a wonderful thing.

There has been talk for some time that the company may do a concert version of an opera at the Lyric, possibly as early as 'Turandot' next month. It's all still up in the air, according to the last I've heard. TS

Keep us posted !

Countertenor operas are always tricky: Cast a mezzo in drag? Or a male of such unusual voice? This student (with the fitting surname "Newcomer") was a pleasure to listen to however. With good stage presence and appearance. Lots of other impressive singers too.

Thanks for your comments.TIM.

I drove down to College Park with friends tonight after reading this review and another elsewhere. I'm generally not a big fan of Handel operas. This one is a bit more fun than others, though the production's set and staging grew boring very quickly. Snore! Still the cast was impressive -- exciting voices and polished acting. I actually prefer UM opera productions to Peabody's. We hope to see UM's Eugene Onegin, which is playing in rep with Serse, on Saturday night.

Thanks for your report.TS

If you liked Serse, Maryland Opera Studio also has a production of Eugene Onegin running in rep with Serse. The production values and attention to details are very high at the Studio. I was impressed with the performances last weekend.

Thanks for your report.TS

I don't typically enjoy opera productions but I thought I'd check this one out. I thought it was GREAT!! I was pleasantly surprised.

Sounds like quite a groundswell of support.TS

"Given the fortunate paucity of castrati today..." Hahaha! No argument there! Thanks for your humor and your good music coverage.

I try. Thanks for commenting.TIM

Hello: I would like ro receive information about the opera studio. I am a cuban mezzosoprano, living in Mexico now. I have performed Barbiere di Siviglia, Carmen and Cenerentola. Thank you, I will wait for your answer.
Best regards, Solanye Caignet.

Here's a link to the Studio's Web page:

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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