Dear Fellow Opera Lovers:
On Tuesday 2 October 2018, I had the pleasure of attending the Haymarket Opera Company’s production of Handel’s _Serse_ at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago.
(Below I omit diacritics; all directions are from the point of view of the audience.)
The participants included:
Arsamene —Megan Moore
Romilda —Katelyn Lee
Atalanta —Erica Schuller
Ariodate —Ryan de Ryke
Amastre —Angela Young Schmucker
Soldiers in Serse’s Army—Joseph Caruana and Andrew Erickson
Stage Direction—Sarah Edgar
Stage Direction Assistant—Julie Brumfiel
Musical Direction—Craig Trompeter
Costume Designer & Supervisor—Meriem Bahri
Costume Construction—Chicago Custom Costumes and Meriem Bahri
Wardrobe Mistress—Victoria Carot
Wig & Make-Up Artists—Emily Young, Penny Lane Studio
Wig & Make-Up Runners—Alice Salazar and Dyllan Miller
Production Manager—Alaina Bartkowiak
Stage Manager—Adrienne Bader
Set Design—Sarah JHP Watkins
This work is a re-working of a 17th-century libretto by Niccolo Minato, but if you did not already know this, you would not learn it from the program booklet. At the end of Ms. Edgar’s synopsis of the plot (of which I have only read the introduction) there is a note: “Read Robert Kendrick’s historical essay on _Serse_ at haymarketopera.org.” I am certain Prof. Kendrick’s essay is excellent. I hope that referring audience members to a website will not prove to be their standard practice.
The three acts were performed with a single intermission after Act II, scene v, i.e., after Romilda’s accompanied recitative soliloquy, “L’amero! Non fia vero,” and aria, “E’ gelosia quella tiranna.” (This is the first accompanied recitative since the opening of the opera and immediately stands out as such. In this instance, the accompanied recitative underscores Romilda’s emotional distress. In the accompanied recitative that opens the opera, “Frondi tenere e belle,” the sustained strings are the auditory equivalent of the shade provided by the plane tree.)
According to the program booklet, the orchestra consisted of 6 violins, 2 violas, 3 cellos, 1 violone, 2 performers on oboe and recorder, 1 bassoon, 1 harpsichord, and 1 theorbo. I am unclear why they do not simply refer to Mr. Trompeter as the conductor; perhaps it is to preserve parallel structure. Indeed he conducted with a baton in the usual manner. The harpsichordist who provided continuo on a two-manual harpsichord (Jory Vinikour, who deserves to be singled out) was to the conductor’s right with the violone, theorbo and violoncellos clustered around him. A viola da gamba (unacknowledged in the program, as far as I can see) was in the row behind them. The violins were placed to the left of the conductor and then (along with the violas) arrayed in front of him. The oboe and recorder players were in a row to the left behind the strings. (I did not see where the bassoonist sat.)
Of course, the orchestra performed in a pit, whereas in Handel’s Haymarket Theatre, where this work was first performed in April 1738, the orchestra was on the same level as the first row on the main floor, which was raked. The original cast was as follows:
Serse—Caffarelli (soprano castrato)
Arsamene—Lucchesina (female mezzo soprano)
Amastre—Merighi (female contralto)
Romilda—Franceschini (female soprano)
Atalanta—Chimenti (female contralto)
(From Otto Erich Deutsch, _Handel: A Documentary Biography_ (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974), p. 456.)
Sarah Edgar is a proponent of historical performance practice. The program booklet contains nine paragraphs of her staging notes including a quotation from _The History of the English Stage_ (1741) and four illustrations from _The Rudiments of Genteel Behavior_ (1737). Seldom did I find the stage movement convincing. (For a better idea of acting in the Baroque period, I would recommend the DVD of Lully’s _Persee_ performed by Opera Atelier.)
I have acknowledged those responsible for the costumes and wigs (even though I have no idea what a “runner” is outside the context of—well—running) because they produced the most luxuriant 18th-century costumes I have yet to behold! The characters were dressed in Persian style (or rather what an 18th-century European would take for Persian style; during intermission I met someone from Iran who remarked about the fetishizing of Persian dress at the time). The facial hair on the females was highly convincing.
One of the few things that the costuming did not get across is with regard to when Elviro is supposed to be a woman selling flowers. I realized from the singing that he was passing for a woman, but was puzzled by the hat, which though comic I did not identify as indicating a woman. (The hat was piled with various glazed fruits.)
The stage setting was simple, far simpler than the half dozen or so sets indicated in the libretto (I gather this simply from leafing through the libretto in the Malgoire recording; I have not examined this opera in many years.) There was a single backdrop with a wash of colors, blue, pinkish and white from bottom to top. To the right in the mid distance were the branches of a tree, supposedly the plane tree that Serse is so in love with at the beginning of the opera. There were two or three white marble benches that looked more Greek than Persian (number and position changed after intermission). To the left was a tall yellow structure with tall arches on each side covered by white curtains. At one point, a white flat flew in from the right blocking the tree branches. High up on the flat, there was what I believe one calls an ocular with scalloped edges. I have no idea why this appeared. (At some point—I do not recall when—this flat was withdrawn.) Nothing in the staging conveyed the destruction of the Hellespont bridge; one had to hear this in Handel’s music.
The Studebaker Theater is a relatively small theatre and provides an intimate context for enjoying an opera like this one, never intended for huge auditoriums like those at the Lyric Opera of Chicago or the Metropolitan Opera, etc. I sat in the second row of the balcony and was able to see the performers up close, in contrast to my seats at the Lyric, which are in the fourth row of the lower part of the upper balcony.
With regard to the voices, I have a confession to make (I hope we can keep this among the thousand of us or so). I had no idea that the roles of Serse and Arsamene were sung by females. Only during intermission did someone point out to me that Serse was a woman, and it was only after the performance in speaking to someone who had attended one of this weekend’s performances that I realized that Arsamene also was female. I was complaining to myself throughout the performance about countertenors singing castrato roles. In my view, countertenors should stick to their own repertoire. I prefer females singing castrato roles because their voices are —usually—steadier and unforced in comparison to the voices of countertenors, but now I must admit I have to qualify that view: in this repertoire I prefer mezzo sopranos or contraltos as long as they do not sound like countertenors! (I love countertenors in repertoire composed with countertenor voices in mind; I have no intention of igniting passions in this regard.)
Most of the singers had good sized voices for this theatre, except for Ms. Smucker, whose voice was smaller than ideal.
The singers typically did not embellish the first A-statements of their da capo arias, which is—in my view—a misunderstanding of performance practice during Handel’s time. (The only exception I noticed, might have been Serse’s “Piu che penso alle fiamme.”) The first A-statement should be embellished, and the second A-statement should be embellished differently. The only time I have experienced a performance that accords with this practice was the Chicago Opera Theatre’s production of Handel’s _Agrippina_ under the leadership of the exquisite Emmanuelle Haim. (This was at the Athenaeum Theatre, not all that much larger than the Studebaker Theater, and yet they had the two harpsichords one would expect for a Handel opera.) For the repertoire in question, I wish singers would avoid striving to show off high notes in their cadenzas that are divorced from the main register of the aria in question.
Before the opera began, someone announced that Erica Schuller (Atalanta) was feeling under the weather and that she begged the audience’s indulgence. In the event, I detected no signs of this. She sang with a full, steady voice. She was by far the most convincing actress with regard to her movements and gestures.
In general, the performance was less rhythmically incisive than ideal, in my view (particularly, in Serse’s rage aria, “Crude furie degl’orridi abissi”). I wish that the conductor brought the hemiolas out more in arias in triple meter and compound meter. Unless I am mistaken, all the final cadences in recitatives were simultaneous with the voice, which conforms to the performance practice of Handel’s day.
I particularly enjoyed Serse and Romilda’a duet, “L’amero / L’amerete?,” and Amastre’s “Si, la voglio.”
After the opera, several of the performers were in the lobby greeting audience members and presumably friends, et al. It was nice to see the performers at such close quarters after the performance. As I passed by Ms. Schuller, I remarked, “You didn’t sound under the weather to me, not that I could notice,” and she thanked me. As I passed by Ms. Lommler, I remarked, “Before intermission, I had no idea you were a woman.” She replied, “That’s what we were aiming for.”
I think this organization deserves support. My account may appear negative, but I am glad I attended. (To be sure, I would prefer if they performed operas I have not already seen.)
I have fond memories of _Xerxes_ (in English) as directed by Stephen Wadsworth [Zinsser—as we called him at Harvard] at the Los Angeles Music Center Opera in October/November 1994. Lorrarine Hunt [sic] sang the role of Serse, which was—of course—a treat. She got one bouquet at the end of the performance. Brian Asawa sang the role of Arsamene. He got two bouquets at the end of the performance, as well as extensive applause after each soliloquy aria in Acts II and III. (This is from the notes I made in my program booklet.) I was eager to hear Asawa in a large auditorium, to assess whether his voice would carry the way one would expect—say—a Cherubino to carry in a typical large American opera house, and was surprised that in fact his voice _was_ large enough for the house.
Here, I veer from opera, but not from voice: my first experience hearing Asawa remains unforgettable: it was at a performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass in the smaller of the two auditoriums in Schoenberg Hall at UCLA in 1988-1989 academic year. The performance was surprisingly old school (many voices to a part, slower than ideal tempi), and I was not enjoying myself. I was expecting a female contralto to sing the Agnus Dei, so when I heard this incredible voice come from someone who looked like a kid (he was very young looking) I all of a sudden sat up, alive to every twist and turn of Bach’s melody with an immense feeling of joy. His voice had a pure sonority. It was secure without any of the tremulousness I often hear in countertenors. His voice was even throughout the ambitus of the aria (from a below middle C to E flat a minor tenth above). Therefore, I was excited when I saw he was going to perform in _Xerxes_ in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
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