Correction to This Article
The review misstated the first name of the music director. It is Randall Stewart, not Michael Stewart.

Music Review: Collegiate Productions of Operas by Monteverdi and Handel

Christopher Newcomer sings the title role of Handel's
Christopher Newcomer sings the title role of Handel's "Xerxes" in a production by the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland. (By Cory Weaver)
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By Joan Reinthaler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 20, 2009

The early operas fielded by two university music programs over the weekend offered fascinating and reassuring lessons in the possibilities offered by very different approaches to artistic excellence.

Catholic University's music department took on "L'incoronazione di Poppea" at Ward Hall on Friday as the capstone of a course devoted to a close study of Monteverdi's last opera. This was a scholarly approach that focused on Roman historical legend, early versions of the opera's score and the minds and the motives of the nasty and cynical beings who inhabit this cast of characters. The result of all this scholarship was coherent and powerful, not because all of the singing was wonderful or the staging lavish but because a whole menagerie of personalities and their relationships came across with such dramatic credibility.

In this opera, the bad guys win. The scheming Poppea, sung and acted with artistry by Tamara Tucker, becomes Nero's empress through a combination of sex, guile and a bloodthirsty eagerness to dispatch Nero's wife, Ottavia (Anamer Castrello), her own husband, Ottone ( Alexander Indelicato, a little stolid), and the philosopher Seneca (played with low-key dramatic honesty by Charles Hyland). Soprano Bridget Eversole's Nero (the part was originally written for castrato but castrati are hard to come by these days) was convincingly passionate and shallow, and she sang beautifully.

Much of the rest of the cast (and it's a large one of gods, guards and court functionaries) was made up of less-experienced undergraduates, with mixed results -- nice dramatic timing but quite a bit of flat singing and some not-quite-in-focus ensemble numbers.

Music Director Michael Stewart led a well-rehearsed quintet of student strings, and harpsichordist Nicholas Catravas handled the huge continuo role with distinction. Directors Debbie Niezgoda and Rachel Evangeline Barham molded all the disparate elements of opera into tight coherence.

On Saturday, the University of Maryland's estimable professional training ground, the Maryland Opera Studio, opened its production of Handel's "Xerxes," a long fluff of an opera full of pleasant Handelian arias, nice orchestral interludes, a lot of comic misunderstandings, letters gone astray, people hiding behind bushes and, again, men dressed as women and women as men. It is an opera that needs savvy and well-turned-out singers, and the Opera Studio specializes in this.

The countertenor role of the hapless Emperor Xerxes was taken on indefatigably by Christopher Newcomer, who made the most of his best dramatic points through facial expressions and body language. Mezzo Alexis Tantau was a solid, occasionally inspired Arsamene, Xerxes' brother and an object of the affections of two beautiful women: Romilda, sung with agile lyricism by Astrid Marshall, and Atalanta, sung by Onyu Park, an enormously talented soprano and actress whose eye-rolls upstaged everyone in the cast. Kenneth Slowick led a poised and alert chamber orchestra, and director Nick Olcott kept things moving smoothly.

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