Xerxes, SF Opera

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel
Original production by Nicholas Hytner
Revival directed by Michael Walling
Conducted by Patrick Summers
San Francisco Opera (company premiere), War Memorial Opera House
Oct. 30-Nov. 19, 2011

Though the Bay Area’s ovation-prone operagoers once again leapt to their feet at the end of the third performance of San Francisco Opera’s premiere of “Xerxes,” it was hard to argue that it didn’t deserve the honor. Try as one might, there was nary anything to fault with this glowing production (an import from English National Opera, actually, and a very good one, too, given that it’s more than two decades old). Noticing small blemishes—malfunctioning projections; an occasional over-inflected note—amounted to pointless quibbles in what is the unqualified hit of the season so far.

Handel’s gender-, genre-bending opera mixes elements of seria and buffa; Nicholas Hytner’s re-imagining emphasizes the latter, though always with a light touch, never descending into vaudeville schtick (even though the opening “credits,” a series of explanatory vignettes about each character, have a music-hall charm). This brilliant production shines in its pastel-hued sets (by David Fielding) and staging (revived by Michael Walling), which moved in perfect accord with the orchestra (conducted by Patrick Summers, providing a lesson that enthusiasm at the podium needn’t mean voice-drowining volume). Married with a sterling vocal ensemble, this presentation floated on the magic of Handel’s sumptuous score.

The cast, led by mezzo Susan Graham in the title role and countertenor David Daniels as Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes, negotiate the knotty plot with lilting grace. In what is revealed to be a love quadrangle (where only one of the couples is requited, as it were), Graham sets the stage, beginning regally with “Ombra mai fu,” the famous ode to a plane tree, thereafter displaying a virtuosic range of emotions, from lust (“Più che penso”) to marble-smashing anger (“Crude furie”) to resignation. Likewise, Daniels (a Handel veteran) exhibits considerable suppleness in his portrayal, managing a melancholic “Non so se sia le speme” after being banished by the king and then a bruised-yet-defiant “Troppo oltraggi la mia fede,” his lover’s-spat duet with Romilda (performed with a winningly bright tone by soprano Lisette Oropesa). As Atalanta, Romilda’s meddling, love-stung sibling, soprano Heidi Stober nearly steals every scene she appears in—except when bass Michael Sumuel is also onstage, and then all eyes and ears revel in his playful rendition of the servant Elviro. Italian contralto Sonia Prina plays Amastris, Xerxes’ betrothed (temporarily scorned and dressed as a man), with a good measure of bravado, giving her arias breathtaking ornamentation (as is now accepted by Handel purists). Only bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, in the rather thankless role of Ariodates, father to Romilda and Atalanta, overstates his vocal case, inflecting a bit heavily and presenting a swaggering caricature rather than a model of deference and wisdom.

As for the production itself, don’t go looking for historically accurate detail. Walling’s quirky revival of Hytner’s original is loaded with clever anachronisms; in fact, it appears set not so much in ancient Persia as in a late 18th-century English country manor of some sort, attended by bald, white-face butlers and groomsmen (or are they eunuchs, a cunning reference to the castrati who once sang the lead roles?) and peopled with courtiers clad in silvery gray, with makeup to match. But even that time period is not fixed, with references to 20th-century incandescent bulbs and transatlantic chairs and some potted cacti. Certainly, the modern gestures and facial expressions exhibited by the singers suggest that Hytner/Walling are going for an updated feel. That the singers carry them off with such convincing verve is a tribute not only to the concept but also to the timelessness of Handel’s musical themes. This fresh, spirited version is eloquent evidence that you can indeed resuscitate a classic.

John Sullivan

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