Haymarket Opera’s uneven “Serse” proves a mixed bag of Baroque 

Sun Sep 30, 2018 at 3:05 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Suzanne Lommler in the title role of Handel’s “Serse” at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Charles Osgood

Watching Haymarket Opera’s growth and artistic progression over the last seven years has been one of the great pleasures of Chicago’s music beat. One looked forward to the Baroque opera company finally tackling a big three-act Handel opera, which they did with Serse, which opened Haymarket’s eighth season Saturday night at the Studebaker Theater.

Yet, while there were some fleeting bright moments, Haymarket’s Serse ultimately proved a mixed to disappointing experience.  Despite solid musical and production values, too much of the singing was sorely lacking in gleam and distinction—a game mediocrity prevailed among the young cast, which fell far short of serving Handel’s marvelous score.

Written in 1738, Serse was a late work for Handel, coming at a time of waning popularity for Italian opera in London. The premiere was a disaster and Serse ran for only five performances; the opera was never staged again in Handel’s lifetime and only revived in 1924.

In addition to Italian opera seria falling out of favor, contemporary observers were discomfited by Handel dispensing with traditional da capo arias and, especially, Serse’s blend of drama and low comedy. (Charles Burney called the libretto “one of the worst Handel ever set to Music” with “a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery.”) Yet it is that very mercurial style and succession of quick, short arias that bestow a quirky, quicksilver quality that makes Serse appealing today. 

Serse (Xerxes), the headstrong and impulsive king of Persia, is pursing the beautiful Romilda, who is really in love with Serse’s brother Arsamene (and he with her). In typical operatic complications Romilda’s sister Atalanta is also in love with Arsamene, and Serse is himself being pursued by his rejected lover Amastre, who is in disguise as a man.

While the tangled libretto is, well, baroque, even by standards of the genre, Serse is one of the musically richest of Handel’s late stage works, with a bounty of terrific solo arias for all seven characters.

The evening got off to a lackluster start, which, unfortunately, proved a harbinger of things to come. Serse’s entrance aria is one of the most celebrated Handel numbers in the canon; yet Suzanne Lommler’s shallow tone, uneven projection and distracting, traffic-directing hand gestures did little to serve the lilting “Ombrai mai fu.” 

While Lommler was able to handle the technical challenges of the title trousers role—originally written for castrato—her monochrome mezzo-soprano provided only fleeting pleasures. More crucially, Lommler’s Serse was dramatically one dimensional—too often merely arch and striking haughty arrogant poses, she failed to bring much complexity or humor to the absurd character. 

Lommler’s characterization and singing improved somewhat after intermission with greater comic finesse and more expressive vocalism. She delivered Serse’s rage aria “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi” with fire and vindictive fury, making one wish she had found more of that vocal intensity earlier.

Not helped by an unflattering gray-green wig, Katelyn Lee was a capable and sincere Romilda, though her thin soprano sounded too light even for this music and intimate venue. Megan Moore was similarly serviceable in the trousers role of Arsamene, though her singing and acting were too often muted when greater dramatic fervor was required. 

Angela Young Smucker was an earnest Amastre, sexy in her hair-tossing climactic unveiling of the gender-bending role. Vocally the tall mezzo sang expressively yet often sounded over-parted by the coloratura demands of her arias.  

The finest moments of the evening came from Erica Schuller as Atalanta, with the company regular bringing a welcome comic spark and vocal panache. The charismatic soprano’s theatrical rendition of “Un cenno leggiadreto”—in which Atalanta joyfully plots her deceitful revenge—was the high point of the three-hour show, thrown off by Schuller with vitality, easy agility and boatloads of personality.

The obligatory bass role of clownish rustic was a cliche even in Handel’s time but at least the towering David Govertsen brought some energy and oafish irony to the servant Elviro. In an evening of very light voices, baritone Ryan de Ryke provided some robust relief as Ariodate, his moments of textual confusion apart.

Director Sarah Edgar must take some of the blame for the tepid quality that dominated the proceedings. With the comedy largely missing in action, the long evening lumbered along in dutiful fashion, kept on track by music director Craig Trompeter in the pit.

The show also felt underrehearsed. Lommler made a late entrance after a character had already referred to Serse’s presence. There were blown lines in Act III and a scary moment when prompting from the pit was needed to get the singers back on track. 

Finally, the amount of program space given to Edgar’s long note about her directing philosophy would have been better utilized by giving audience members some background on Handel’s opera—rather than directing them to the Haymarket website to read Robert Kendrick’s (excellent) essay on Serse.

Serse will be repeated 5 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Haymarket Opera’s uneven “Serse” proves a mixed bag of Baroque ”

  1. Posted Sep 30, 2018 at 9:13 pm by Robert Crawford

    Mr. Johnson: What a pity you found so many flaws in the opening-night Serse. I just returned from the Sunday performance which was a pure delight. We were reminded of the early (halcyon?) days of C.O.T. — the feeling that you were watching a team effort, shot through with enthusiasm. I’ve heard at least two Handel operas at Lyric, and neither has (or will) stay with me like the one I heard today.
    After all that, please let me say how lucky we are to Have Chi. Classical Review among us.
    Robert Crawford

  2. Posted Oct 01, 2018 at 11:03 pm by C Bennett

    We saw the Haymarket Serse on Sunday pm and it was utterly delightful. We are not in any way related to anyone in the cast or production, but we love Handel’s operas, and this was lovely and uplifting (and frankly better than productions we’ve seen at Lyric or in Australia). The singing was uniformly good and at best tender, sweet and thrilling. The instrumental musicians are fabulous and the production was enthralling. How lucky we are to have Haymarket among us!

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