Intrigue at the Opera

February 27, 2010

University of Alberta Department of Music Opera Workshop

Serse, by G.F. Handel

Tanya Prochazka, Conductor

Brian McIntosh, Director

University Symphony Orchestra


A love triangle seems to be a mandatory part of any night at the opera, but what does it add up to when there are two sisters in love with one guy, two brothers in love with one of those girls, and a jilted lover on the side?  Can you really have a love pentagon?  That’s a lot to process.

The University of Alberta Opera Workshop just finished up a four performance run (September 25-28) of Handel’s opera Serse.  The story follows a series of mostly-fictional events in the life of Xerxes, King of Persia.  He and his brother are both in love with Romilda, but unfortunately for the King, both Romilda and her sister are in love with the brother. Meanwhile the King’s forgotten fiancée is seeking justice while running around in disguise as a disgruntled soldier. 

While the opera made its debut in 1738, it has only become a fan favourite in the last century.  When Handel wrote it he was working in England, and audiences there were accustomed to serious opera.  Handel tried something new with Serse, throwing in comic plot elements as was the current trend in Italy.  Turns out the Brits weren’t up for laughs, and the music drifted to the back of filing cabinets.

These days opinions have changed; the opera’s most comic character, Elviro, is now a favourite with audiences.  Jacques Arsenault shone in this role, hamming up his part and clearly enjoying himself.  His singing was strong, flexible and confident.  The other major male role, Ariodate, was sung by Jihwan Cho.  Although Ariodate doesn’t get nearly as much stage time as some of the other characters, Cho had great presence and easily navigated his way through the part.

I’m a big fan of university opera because it provides students with an opportunity to experience being part of this kind of performance.  Singing and acting your way through a two hour storyline is tough, and it’s no easier in Italian.  It took a few of the performers a little time to get their stage feet on; not all the lead characters exuded confidence in their first appearances, but as the evening progressed they all found their voices.  Sarah Toane was a pleasure to listen to as Serse, and Jodi Penner and Rebecca Claborn were memorable as Romilda and Arsamene in their interaction with each other, especially in the third act. 

One of the most inspiring aspects of student opera is that there are often few resources to work with in terms of set and costumes, demanding instead that the singers be creative in the way they use limited props to depict a bigger picture.  The stage at the Timm’s Centre for the Arts was stark, with minimalist red cubes, white pillars, and long white drapes arranged to create walls, trees, and furniture against the black stage.  This colour scheme was sharp against the rich hues of Persian-esque costumes; it was a little distracting at times, but the singers interacted well with the sets and captured the whole audience’s attention. 

The University of Alberta Department of Music is always up to something new.  Check out their website at to see what’s on next.


more in Music Feature     |     posted Mar 1st, 2010 at 12:33pm     

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