Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SFO's "Xerxes"

San Francisco Opera
Handel’s Xerxes
November 4, 2011

Dealing with the gap between Baroque practices and modern audience expectations is always a bit of a high-wire act, but SFO’s company premiere of Xerxes is right on balance. Production designer Nicholas Hytner provides an intriguing backdrop, using London’s 18th Century Vauxhall Gardens as his model. Director Michael Walling takes every opportunity to use Handel’s florid style for comic ends, thus acknowleding the elephant in the room. The combination provides an energizing framework for an evening of soaring musicality, thanks to conductor Patrick Summers, a period-faithful orchestra and a stunningly talented cast of singers.

The solid core of the production comes from mezzo Susan Graham in the lead role and countertenor David Daniels as the king’s brother, Arsamanes. Graham is a local favorite, having created the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s groundbreaking Dead Man Walking. She delivers in full here, although she’s a bit hampered by her sunny exterior. (Xerxes is an A-one jerk, especially in matters romantic.) Daniels provides an intriguing flash of exotica, nimbly delivered, but, I have to admit, not my favorite sound. (It was actually Xerxes who was originally played by a castrato, but gender in Handel is a pretty flexible matter.)

The real plaudits go to two sopranos playing women, Lisette Oropesa as Romilda, the object of the royal brothers’ affections, and Heidi Stober as her crafty sister Atalanta. Both showed tremendous skill with the trademark runs; both took full advantage of crescendoes, cultivating them with great care and effect. Stober’s first-act “Un cenno leggiadretto” was an especial delight.

For sheer athleticism, it’s hard to beat Italian alto Sonia Prina, playing Xerxes’ wronged fiancee, Amastris. She has a way of taking extraordinarily fierce runs and still separating the notes into discrete marcatos, which is somewhere near superhuman. It also fits the character, whose need for vengeance causes her to skulk around in men’s clothing, running sabotage against the king. At one point, she’s wandering through a crowd of stuffy socialites, delivering Handel’s ornaments as booze-soaked grenades of gingivitis.

The chorus is a cosmic joke in itself, dressed and made up completely in gray, and playing The Offended to all off-kilter behavior. As in, bass Michael Sumuel as Arsamenes’ servant Elviro, a very large man disguised as a flower girl to deliver a secret message. Another amusing presence is bass Wayne Tigges as the overenthusiastically martial Ariodates.

It’s a testament to Handel’s creation – based on Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto - that he takes on such a tangled love quadrangle and manages to keep things straight. This is thanks in part to innovations such as the brief arias and recitatives that he was exploring later in life.

It was a joy watching Summers – an unmitigated Handel enthusiast – leading the small orchestra, which included such period instruments as the theorbo (a longnecked lute), arch lute and baroque guitar. Summers handles his chores with great delicacy, providing plentiful space for his singers to luxuriate in his cadenzas.

Although the action took place in Handel’s London, Hytner used the relics often displayed at Vauxhall to pay tribute to the tale’s Persian origins – notably a large bird-like figure from the Persian capitol of of Persepolis, whose construction was completed by Xerxes himself.

Through Nov. 19, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$330, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

Image: Heidi Stober (Atlanta). Photo by Cory Weaver.

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