This summer, in its 17th season, Halifax Summer Opera Festival brought enthusiastic young singers to town again to produce two double-cast fully staged operas: Serse (1738) by G.F. Handel and La Jolie Parfumeuse (1873) by Jacques Offenbach, the latter apparently a Canadian premiere. This provided eight performances of welcome entertainment to a COVID, fire and storm-weary audience. The choice of operas was inspired, with uplifting music and plots completely outside contemporary reality: La Jolie Parfumeuse is a comic operetta, and Serse, may have been intended as Opera Seria, but it exudes comic buffo.
In HSOF’s La Jolie Parfumeuse, the uproarious spoken dialogue was in English, and the singing in French with projected sidebar English translation. The English rendition was provided by David Mosey, who, along with Andrew Pelrine co-directed the production. Much of the hilarity of this work stems from the intentional confusion created by the deceptions and credulity of the characters on stage. The viewers are unavoidably swept into this confusion.
Soprano Ashley Carpenter, as Rose, the title role in all four performances was delightful in voice and with considerable comedic talent. She married two different husbands in the alternate casts: mezzo Janaki Butterworth and soprano Madeline Berman in trouser roles. Both Bavolets were vocally impressive, consistent, and expressive as lovesick, befuddled, and bewildered foils of a ridiculous plot. Butterworth’s comedic skills need mention: even in her very minor silent role as a knight riding a stick during the “Mittens” duet for Rose and Bavolet she was hilarious.
The two Clorindes, equally impressive, interpreted the role quite differently. Soprano Charlotte Anderson’s Clorinde was a sophisticated schemer who knew how to effortlessly manipulate the rich Major La Corcardiere, a gormless lecher performed by MarKo Hubert. She played the seduction game with aloof intelligence. Soprano Dahlia Gamache, the other Clorinde, was more outrageously flirtatious, her seduction attempts amusingly exaggerated and her powerful high notes were spectacular. Marko Hubert’s Major was a perfectly bumbling buffoon. Sarah Brown, as Poirot and as the Polish artist was charming; reading the letter to the parents of the woman he thought was Bruscambille was a feat of delusional absurdity.
Among the smaller roles in the operetta, Germaine, the housekeeper performed by Karina Lago Disdier, provided a wry critique of the madness unfolding in the Major’s house with perfectly timed responses and a distinct, rich, voice. The rest of the two casts were mostly heard in the chorus but Rosalie Dowling was a very funny La Julienne and Olivia MacGowan a appealing Arthemise. This was a hectic bedroom farce and it was important that the the acting keep up with the exacting pace of the music. It did! Giancarlo Scalia directed and performed the entire accompaniment with great enthusiasm and power.
A century and a half earlier, Handel had challenged the conventions of his time by daring to mix genres of tragedy and comedy in Serse, first performed in 1738. Handel is among the first composers to use trousers roles, and this production effectively employed this convention. The opera is set in Persia circa 470 BC and purportedly based on historical persons. It opens with Serse, the successful warrior King of Persia, singing an emotional love song (Ombra mai fu), to his tree. Both Serses, mezzos Haley Boyd and Emma Yee, were earnestly ardent toward the tree.
But then the king hears the voice of Romilda singing about the futility of loving a tree which cannot reciprocate, and immediately shifts his infatuation to this unseen voice. The sweet soprano of Siyuan Carter-Patkau, as Romilda was enchanting with its light coloratura and natural unwavering vibrato. Clare Lowe, as the other loveable Romilda, sounded slightly more mature with more vocal nuance. Unfortunately for Serse, Romilda was in love with his brother Arsamenes, portrayed by sopranos Hannah Overbey in one cast and by Karina Lago Disdier in the other.
The difficulty of being the younger sibling of an autocrat was brilliantly rendered by both who had to reveal a rapidly changing range of emotions from ecstatic joy to deep despair when the king vows to take Romilda as his wife and even condemns his brother to death. In the various scenes of affection between Arsamenes and Romilda, Overbey and Carter-Patkau were over-the-top hilarious. The mutual intense ardour between Lago Disdier’s Arsamenes and Lowe’s Romilda was poignant and tender. Lago Disdier’s sound is uniquely velvety and lush. Arsamenes’ faithful servant, Elviro, was performed by MarKo Hubert who tirelessly appeared in each of the HSOF eight shows as a blatant fool with a very powerful voice. His flower song was a genuine treat.
Much of the drama revolves around deception, jealousy, mistaken identity, and the fallibility of a tyrant to dictate love. Romilda herself has a very conniving sister, Atalanta, played more dramatically by Chihiro Yasufuku and more comically by Julia Jordan. She wants to marry Arsamenes, and plots to ensure that Serse marries Romilda against her will. Yasufuku’s Atalanta was deviously subtle and with fine voice, Jordan’s interpretation was funny and commanding. She was the sister from Hell indeed. For more gender role reversals, the opera also included a spurned lover from Serse’s past, Amastre, who enters the stage briefly as a woman, then disguises herself as a man. Mezzos MacKenzie Sechi and Heather Byford brought enormous energy and presence to the role. The role of General Ariodate, Romilda and Atalanta’s father, was powerfully performed by bass-baritone Nicholas Murphy in a glorious epic attempt to keep his king happy and make sure that the right bride was given to the right royal.
The musicians accompanying this performance were Nick Rodgerson at the piano, John Rowe on Oboe and Bassoon, conducted by Melissa Doiron who also played the flute and the piccolo. Handel’s magnificent and joyful music was wonderfully achieved. Halifax Summer Opera Festival’s astounding Artistic Director, Nina Scott-Stoddart, directed this production of Serse, which clearly brought great pleasure to the performing casts and the audience.
HALIFAX SUMMER OPERA FESTIVAL
Aug 11-19, 2023
Melissa Doiron Conductor
Nina Scott-Stoddart Stage Director
Nick Rodgerson Pianist
John Rowe Bassoon
Maureen Batt Vocal Coach
Ryann Farmer Costumes
Mary Fay Coady Alexander Technique
Haley Boyd/Emma Yea Serse
Hannah Overbey/Karina Lago Disdier Arsamene
MacKenzie Sechi/Heather Byford Armastre
Siyuan Carter-Patkau/Clare Lowe Romilda
Chihiro Yasufuku/Julia Jordan Atalanta
Nicholas Murphy Ariodate
MarKo Hubert Elvira