X Marks the Spot
In the whacked-out world that is opera, it was an ex-pat German who gave the English the perfect Italian operas that they craved.
During the turn of the 18th century, musical London was overcome with Italy mania. Every opera had to be in Italian, and the baroque opera seria reigned as the crowning theater entertainment. It was as if, suddenly, all restaurants only served pasta and all bars, Chianti. Into the fray waddled the German Georg Friedrich Handel, who completely wowed everybody with his felicitous melodies, astute theatricality and astounding harpsichord playing. Molding the moribund Italian opera into suitable shape, this "glorious Saxon" transformed English music and made it sing to his own rapturous voice. By the time he was finished, he had become an English citizen, changed his name to George and moved on to joyous oratorios that were more operatic than many of his earlier operas. Once music fashion changed, Handel's baroque stage works stayed unknown for the greater part of two centuries. When his operas were rediscovered, like Tut's tomb, exciting new musical treasures were revealed.
Xerxes (Serses, in Italian, 1738) is one of Handel's last operas and crowns him as a consummate artist and a thrillingly adept theater impresario. Although the story has an oriental, ancient history setting, the type so beloved by opera seria, the entire impression is one of delightful baroque lite. Not ponderous or terribly serious, it's about love, not politics — a comedy of manners about the messes even famous people make when in the throes of Eros.
Xerxes, king of Persia, falls in love with Romilda, who is in love with Arsamenes, Xerxes's brother. Xerxes, in turn, is betrothed to foreign princess Amastris, who has disguised herself as a soldier to find out why his ardor has turned so cold. Meanwhile, Romilda's flighty sister Atalanta loves Arsamenes, too, and when Xerxes banishes Arsamenes so the king can have unfettered access to Romilda, this leaves the wandering Arsamenes vulnerable to Atalanta's entreaties. The mismatched couples bounce back and forth with lighthearted passions, abetted by buffa servant Elviro, until the lovers' misunderstandings are neatly wrapped up and everyone lives happily ever after.
Baroque opera can be pretty rough going for both novice and initiated. Codified to the extreme, opera seria is awash with roulades, trills and filigreed furbelows that often seem completely out of tune with what's happening inside, or outside, the characters. Duets are scarce and choruses occur rarely, usually at evening's end. Xerxes is blessed — glorified, really — by the sublime variations that Handel supplies with easy abandon. There's no end to his inventiveness, the color that he caresses out of his small orchestra, the drama that he can elicit from the simplest of melodies. Like Shakespeare, he loves life in all its infinite variety, even its nastiness. To hear Handel at his best is to hear the best in music.
Nicholas Hytner's production, originally created in 1985 for English National Opera, is lauded for giving Baroque opera a spiky update with its tongue-in-cheek visual flair. He sets it during Handel's time in a pleasure garden much like London's famous Vauxhall, so the look is green and fresh, with shrubbery and antique Assyrian statuary intermixed. There are also tea trolleys, canvas garden chairs and al fresco museum outings. The silky Georgian costumes are stylish, the sky drops gorgeously atmospheric and the whole enterprise speaks cool, classical elegance. It suits Handel brilliantly and is the perfect bookend to HGO's stunning 2003 art deco eyeful, Julius Caesar, another of Handel's masterpieces.
Maestro William Lacey dances on the podium, drawing a bright, spirited reading from the HGO orchestra. His singers are definitive. Originally written for Caffarelli, the world's most famous castrato, the role of Xerxes is sung by Susan Graham, one of the world's most famous mezzos. She's made a career out of "pants roles," and they suit her like a fine bespoke outfit. She plays this paper tyrant with a comic "gee, it's good to be king" attitude, and tosses off the vocal curlicues with laser precision. Arsamenes, originally written for a female mezzo, is taken by David Daniels, one of the world's preeminent countertenors. As usual, he is superb as both singer and actor, and his celestial voice is unearthly and mesmerizing. Fiery soprano Laura Claycomb plays Romilda, whose voice is said to hypnotize Xerxes. It certainly hypnotizes us, with clarity, timbre and dramatic power. She looks great, too, with her flaming hair cascading around designer David Fielding's beautifully cut lapis gown. Soprano Heidi Stober brings an electric charge to wanton Atalanta, contralto Sonia Prina spins vocal fireworks as Amastris, and HGO studio artist Adam Cioffari takes the bass comedy of Elviro and merrily runs away with it.
The magic and majesty of Handel are brilliantly conjured by HGO with this sumptuously inspired Xerxes — musical theater at its pinnacle.
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