Maryland Opera Studio offers lively staging of Handel's 'Serse'
An 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.
PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER FOR UM SCHOOL OF MUSIC/CLARICE SMITH CENTER