Pittsburgh Festival Opera gave the first of three performances of Händel’s Xerxes last night, and it was a delightfully rare opportunity to hear this seldom performed “Baroque” music. The work premiered in London in 1738, and flopped after a handful of performances. The famous “Ombra mai fu” opening aria survived to become a standard with concert singers many decades later; is in the repertories of most organists, and has been recorded by tenors, contraltos and counter-tenors from the earliest days of “phonographic” history until the present. But the opera itself virtually disappeared until the 1920’s. Its original production failed because it was not the type of opera early 18th century listeners were accustomed to and enjoyed – the arias were not of the long, three-movement “da capo” variety so popular at the time, and its comic elements were perceived as out of place. Audiences preferred either the comic or tragic, with little tolerance of the middle road, and the admixture of “noble” characters with those of a “common” sort was a distinct deviation from what was acceptable on the stage, to say nothing of life in general in those days.
Händel composed the opera (“Serses” in the original Italian, as that language’s alphabet does not include “x”) to a libretto with a rather complex history. Nicolò Minato wrote the first version, for an opera of the same name by Francesco Cavalli, first heard in Rome in 1654. Silvio Stampiglia adapted Minato’s book for composer Giovanni Bononcini’s 1694 opera. There is some disagreement among music historians regarding who reworked Stampaglia’s version for Händel, but all are loosely based on King Xerxes of ancient Persia and, with slight variations, real people and events in his life.
A quick synopsis of the three act opera – Xerxes loves and is determined to marry Romilda, a daughter of Ariodate, one of the king’s generals. But Romilda is also loved by Arsamene, Xerxes’ brother. Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, is in love with Arsamene. Amastre, Xerxes’ abandoned fiancée, disguises herself as a man to seek revenge. Atalanta’s amusing attempts to convince all that Arsamene loves her causes a series of complicated misunderstandings, while the comic servant Elviro pops in and out to liven up the confusion of mistaken identity and love letters helped to fall into the wrong hands. The opera ends with a quick resolution that reunites Xerxes with Amastre, and Arsamene with Romilda. The mighty king is humbly forgiving, Atalanta does not appear to be especially distressed that her sister is the victor in their sibling rivalry, and no one is killed. It takes an exceptional group of singing actors and strong direction to keep up interest in such doings, and Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s production, fortunately, has both.
Written in the age of the castrato, today it is a showpiece for the counter-tenor. Not as strong a work as Händel’s Julius Caesar (which was outstandingly presented by the company last summer) it has been said that the elements of Xerxes that fared so poorly with its first audiences are precisely those which make it so appealing to audiences nearly three centuries later, and that this is true was amply demonstrated last evening. The audience loved it, and the performance ended in an ovation that was quite a roar of approval.
It is doubtful that this would be the case if the production did not have such a strong ensemble of talent, onstage and off. The cast is one of exceptional excellence. The orchestra, augmented by Chatham Baroque’s Andrew Fouts (violin), Patricia Halverson (viola de gamba) and Scott Pauley (theorbo) was conducted by Walter Morales, and the last named gentleman has proven on several occasions that he truly understands and loves the music of this genre. He proved it again last night quite successfully. Metropolitan Opera director Dan Rigazzi returned to work the same wonders he did with Julius Caesar, and the production as a whole is a well-choreographed, colorfully costumed and entertaining evening, despite a slight monotony in some of the music and a comparatively mild plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit a mighty king.
Andrey Nemzer, in the title role, made the most of the demanding music written for the character. Händel screws the tessitura up to a very high register, and pretty much keeps it there throughout. Nemzer was formidable in appearance, and poured out the vocal line with apparent ease, a feat quite impossible for all but the most highly skilled and talented performer of this vocal range. His voice is huge and brilliant, and his singing and acting of the fatiguing role pleased the audience greatly. Fellow counter-tenor Daniel Moody, as Arsamene, made a fine showing with the vastly more varied music Händel wrote for his role. His performance was a highlight of the evening, despite costuming, makeup and hair designs which gave him a slightly disconcerting resemblance to a carnival’s bearded lady.
Lara Lynn McGill sang the demanding role of Romilda quite effectively. As she has proven on a number of occasions in this and other roles, her voice is one of great strength and beauty, and of exquisite color in both sustained fortissimo passages and the most delicate pianissimo tones. She acts with
subtle nuances that are quite effective, and in appearance presents a vision of blonde beauty that would have quite startled the inhabitants of ancient Persia. Bonnie Frauenthal, as Romilda’s sister Atalanta, sang the role’s music quite impressively, and acted the part with a charming sense of comic innocence. She, too, was an audience favorite.
Emily Harmon, as Amastre, displayed her velvety mezzo-soprano voice to its best advantage in the more sustained passages of the last act. James Eder (Elviro) was a comic delight, and his bass voice is one of ample quality and quantity. Evan Koons (Ariodate) made the most of a role that offers little opportunity until the third and final act, displaying a powerful bass and an engaging flare for comic timing.
Dancers Weylin Gomez and Mils James underlined much of the action with exotic and picturesque effectiveness. A talented ensemble, consisting of Nicolas Barilar, Richard Block, Diego Del Valle, Rodolfo Giron, Chunghee Lee, Francesca Molinaro, Hannah Shea, Emily Weaver, and Terriq White, much like the majority of the leading singers, enunciated the surprisingly good English translation with much clarity.
Xerxes will be repeated only twice, tomorrow at the 2 p.m. matinee, and July 22 at 7:30, and lovers of beautiful singing of Baroque music are highly encouraged to take advantage of this impressive production.
For tickets, a more detailed synopsis, interesting historical facts and much more, visit Pittsburgh Festival Opera.
The Production Team for Xerxes –
Director, Daniel Ragazzi; Conductor, Walter Morales; Assistant Conductor, Jon Erik Schreiber; Pianists, Steven Liening and Yu-Ju Wu; Choreographer, Greer Reed; Scenic and Projection Design, Hank Bullington; Costume Design, Tony Sirk; Lighting Design, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Design, Rikkilee Rose; Assistant Director, Briana Sosenheimer; Stage Manager, Emma Squire; Assistant Stage Managers, Courtney Chaplin and Lauren Wickett.
Photography: Patti Brahim