MUSIC: Haymarket’s “Serse” both charms and Disappoints

A scene from Haymarket Opera’s production of “Serse” by Handel. -Photo courtesy of Charles Osgood Photography

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

The 1738 “Serse” (“Xerxes”) is one of Handel’s most popular operas, although it began as a failure. Audiences were not impressed with the combination of a serious story and comic punctuation, nor did they favor the use of shorter arias. For today’s opera fan, all this can often be a winning combination.

Haymarket Opera Company has opened its eighth season with “Serse” and had a large crowd on hand at the Studebaker Theater Saturday night for the opening of the three-performance run.

The story is complex and convoluted. Two sisters (Romilda and Atalanta) both love the brother of King Serse (Arsamene). Serse loves one of the sisters but already has a fiancée (Amastre). The father of the two sisters (Ariodate) and a servant (Elviro) are drawn into the machinations, which eventually yields two happy couples and one disappointed sister.

The music of this opera is delightful, and Handel’s use of short, one-part arias rather than the then-fashionable long, three-part da capo arias helps to move the complicated plot along.

The Haymarket Orchestra sounded like a million bucks under the baton of Craig Trompeter. The 17-piece pit ensemble (oboe, recorder, bassoon, harpsichord, theorbo, and strings) had glorious sound throughout. There was singing lyricism from the strings and silver-coated lines from the recorder and oboe. The harpsichord was fluid and graceful, and the bassoon contributed mightily to depth.

The stage was simply dressed with the main element a large summerhouse with imposing pillars and long, flowing curtains serving as walls. Branches of a tree poked into the set from the other side of the stage. It was attractive and effective. The costumes by Meriem Bahri were stunningly gorgeous, elaborate, and detailed.

The seven roles were cast by capable singers, yet the results were too often disappointing. Singers out of sync with the orchestra, far too many moments with lack of projection, odd and distracting movement, missed entrances, and wobbly vocal ornamentation were the major defects on opening night.

Suzanne Lommler as Serse had a poor start with a lackluster “Ombra mai fu,” which ought to be one of the highlights of the opera. She was much better after the intermission and she had a fine, royal strut. Singing a role written for a castrato, she gamely sported a fetching beard.

Megan Moore as Arsamene was at her best when singing of how her character (the king’s brother) would have the woman they both loved. Katelyn Lee as Romilda was one of the most successful singers, and she was particularly adept at making every note clear, even in rapid moving passages.

Erica Schuller’s Atalanta was entertaining, and she was particularly persuasive when she wondered how to stop loving the man who didn’t love her. Angela Young Smucker struggled to breath in the right places in her outing as Amastre, and was sometimes difficult to hear.

David Govertsen, in one of the smaller roles, nearly stole the show as the servant Elviro. He proved himself master of the music and the role, always projecting his attractive voice above the orchestra, making even humorous music shapely and interesting, and offering just the right amount of comic buffoonery.

Ryan de Ryke as Ariodate offered fatherly geniality and crisp singing.

The direction by Sarah Edgar was one of the weakest elements of the production. Edgar’s program notes spend considerable ink on her use of “kinesthetic practices” and collaborative style, but the results don’t justify her approach. Many of the singers merely moved awkwardly from one pose to another, and at times you could almost see the clock in their heads which announced their next big posturing stance.

Even if 18th century movement and acting technique, which Edgar champions, are more stylized than contemporary practice, since her stated goal is to “amplify the passions of their character,” she needs to ensure that they are not robotic, awkward, and artless. A mere semaphoric approach to stage movement can never enhance operatic performance.

The audience reaction was cool at the beginning, but warmed up over time. Even so, it was clear from the mostly gentle applause smattered throughout the performance that the singers had not made a strong connection with the folks in the seats.

Coming up: Haymarket Opera offers a concert by the fabulous countertenor Iestyn Davies entitled “From Fear to Faith” on Mar. 9 of next year at Old St. Patrick’s Church. For more information, visit www.haymarketopera.org.