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I’ll plant my own tree

Nicholas Hytner’s much-travelled and well received 1985 production of George Frideric Handel’s 1738 opera Xerxes has been released on DVD from Arthaus Musik, in a performance recorded live from the English National Opera in 1988.   This production features generally fine singing, an interesting and clever production, and superb stage direction by Hytner that allows all the varied emotional and delightful aspects of this unusual opera seria to come to vivid life.

For a non-Handelian like me, this DVD makes an excellent case for Xerxes.  The seemingly endless da capo arias that one associates with Handel opera are much reduced here; many of the arias and recitative moments are brief, to the point, and move the story forward clearly.  In this piece, Handel interspersed numerous buffo moments into the opera seria form, offending his original audience.  The result is a charming mix of comedy and poignancy with moving moments shifting seamlessly to delightfully romantic comic moments.  

Hytner’s steady direction uses these shifting moments to change mood and emotion without ever seeming to jar.  It is a rich and satisfying mixture.  Even the endlessly ornamented vowels (“He spurns me, he spurns me, he spur-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hurns me”) are executed with meaning and emotional clarity.  The coloratura advances the meaning.

While ostensibly set in Persia in 480 BC, this production could just as well be set at an English country estate, sort of Iran meets Downton Abbey.  Aside from one rather desolate palmed landscape and a few ancient statues, the setting is lush and green and florid.  Costumes for the principal characters are luscious and of indistinguishable period, though they most closely resemble 19th century Britain with a few exotic middle Eastern touches.  The chorus is dressed entirely in beige and servants in black with stark white make-up; this makes a striking contrast to the brightly dressed principal characters.

Xerxes is a strange comic/tragic/romantic hybrid featuring mismatched lovers, passionate romantic intrigue, and a few political/military moments thrown in for good measure.  King Xerxes and his brother Arsamenes are both enamored of the lovely Romilda, daughter of the victorious general Ariodates, but Romilda is devoted to Arsamenes and rejects the King’s advances.  Alas, her sister Atalanta also is in love with Arsamenes, and plots to find a way to steal him from her sister.  And then there’s Amastris, Xerxes’ lover who disguises herself as a soldier to try to regain the King’s affection.  There is also a completely buffo stock character, Elviro, the comic servant to Arsamenes.  It is to Hytner’s credit that this production is entirely clear, making the convoluted plot easy to follow.

Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray completely inhabits the title role, and sings with authority and grace throughout.  From her first moment singing the sumptuous “Ombra mai fu” (here translated to “Under thy shade”), she takes command of the stage and never lets go.  She is remarkably versatile in the role, able to navigate the changing emotion of Xerxes with ease and power.  The role contains elegance, wistfulness, passion, fury, jealousy, and romance, and Ms. Murray finds them all.  Every moment is fearlessly and beautifully sung.

Valerie Masterson seems a bit long in the tooth for Romilda, but she sings the role ably and charmingly though the voice turns shrill in the highest range.  Masterson (and indeed the entire cast) has strong coloratura skills and splendid acting moments with fine comic timing.  The same can be said for Lesley Garrett’s Atalanta, though she too sounds uncomfortable in the top notes and occasionally crosses the comic line into cutesiness.  Jean Rigby gives a strong performance as Xerxes’ rejected lover Amastris, equal parts poignant and furious.

The male cast impresses much less.  Christopher Robson’s counter tenor turns sour, thin, and reedy, and he never manages to convince as the man both sisters are swooning about.  The Elviro of Christopher Booth-Jones garners some lowbrow laughs, but seems vocally uncomfortable throughout.  Rodney Macann as the General Ariodates seems a refugee from Gilbert and Sullivan and could use a lot more restraint in his farcical mugging.

Even with a few less-than-stellar performances, this is a musically and dramatically splendid production, amusing yet elegant.  Handel’s glorious music is never sublimated to the production, and even this 186 minutes of music moves nimbly and never bores.  Sir Charles Mackerras leads a sparkling orchestral performance from the Orchestra of the English National Opera, and the neutrally-dressed chorus sings in superb co-ordination.

13 comments

  • armerjacquino says:

    Oh, thank you so much for this. I was at the taping for this when I was 15 and have such, such happy memories of it. A wonderful production and a terrific cast.

    • grimoaldo says:

      I was there too aj in fact you can hear me cheering during the performance!
      Yes it is great.

  • derschatzgabber says:

    This performance has been available in several large chunks on Youtube. Now that it’s commercially available on DVD, it may get removed. So go looking for it quickly if you want a free preview.

    San Francisco opera staged this production in the fall of 2011 (Susan Graham, David Daniels, Lisette Oropessa). I thought it was the highpoint of the San Francisco fall season.

  • grimoaldo says:

    Thanks for the review.
    “While ostensibly set in Persia in 480 BC, this production could just as well be set at an English country estate, sort of Iran meets Downton Abbey. Aside from one rather desolate palmed landscape and a few ancient statues, the setting is lush and green and florid.”

    The idea of the production is that the performance is taking place at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. There is a replica onstage of the famous marble statue of Handel which was put up in 1738, the same year Serse (Xerxes) had its first performance, at Spring Gardens in Vauxhall.
    Picture of the statue here:

    http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/h/roubiliacs-handel/
    ‘Handel’, by Louis François Roubiliac, 1738
    “This full-length marble statue of the composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was commissioned by the entrepreneur and collector Jonathan Tyers, who ran Spring Gardens at Vauxhall in London in the mid-18th century. Handel was then a leading figure in the capital’s musical life. Since public life-size marble statues of living subjects were until this date undertaken only for monarchs, noblemen or military leaders, this figure made a considerable impact at the time.”

    Vauxhall Gardens was a popular place for concerts and a lot of Handel’s music was performed there:

    “The site became Vauxhall Gardens in 1785 and admission was charged to gain entrance to its many attractions. The Gardens drew all manner of people and supported enormous crowds, with its paths being noted for romantic assignations. Tightrope walkers, hot air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks provided amusement. The rococo “Turkish tent” became one of the Gardens’ structures, the interior of the Rotunda became one of Vauxhall’s most viewed attractions, and the chinoiserie style was a feature of several buildings. A statue depicting George Frederic Handel was erected in the Gardens. It later found its way to the Victoria and Albert museum and can now be seen there.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vauxhall_Gardens

    ” In 1749 a rehearsal of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks attracted an audience of 12,000, and in 1786 a fancy dress jubilee to celebrate the proprietor’s long ownership was thronged with 61,000 revellers. Many of the best known musicians and singers of the day performed at the Gardens.”

  • I thought about getting this DVD. I have the Rousset / Dresden from 2000 and it has a terrific cast as well : Rasmussen / Hallenberg (they DO look uncannily like brothers), Bayrakdarian, Piau and the terrific Bardon.

  • Perles75 says:

    The Rousset DVD is indeed much better at all levels: the staging is never boring and clever, the conducting is top level and the cast of singers impressive for voice AND acting.
    Together with the De Niese Giulio Cesare, it is my first choice to show the wonders of Handel’s operas to beginners.

    This Xerxes is anyway much better than the “twin” DVD of Ariodante.

    • As starters, for opera-lovers who are keener on the drama aspect, I’d opt for the Christie / Sellars Theodora and the Christie / Bondy Hercules. Two fascinating productions in almost every way.

      But the Rousset Serse had me watching with rapture from one end to another, one loo break, just couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

  • La marquise de Merteuil says:

    Although each version has its considerable strengths, the ENO has weaknesses which can be overlooked with ease. The same cannot not be said for the weaknesses of of Rousset’s version. Rousset’s weaknesses are glaring ie the laboured tempi, the utter lack of Rassmusen’s technical ability to sustain the Caffarelli role -- her crude furie and every high note is a car crash!. Whereas Ann Murray, at the height of her considerable powers, FLIES through the work.

    I like the period orchestra of the Rousset version, but the ENO version has an overall tighter and more convincing dramatic and musical pace. Atalanta’s arias in particular are just TOO slow. Sorry, as much as I worship Piau -- it is unbearable for me to listen to. In addition Bayrakdarian who I worship in “Marc’ Antonio e Cleopatra” is here very stilted as Romilda, dramatically and vocally and no foil for the coquettish Atalanta. Whereas Masterson, admittedly not blessed with Bayrakdarian’s voice, is much more at home in this demanding role. For Rousset Hallenberg is AMAZING as always and very convincing, and the strongest singer in the cast, but all in all, even though I’m a huge 18th century HIP freak, I’ve only listened to the Rousset version once -- which steals a lot of vocal and dramatic ideas from the ENO version.

    I’ve put the ENO DVD on MANY MANY times, and even though it is in English it really works very well -- and find listening to Serse in Italian very difficult now!

    We are indeed spoilt for choice, and in hindsight we should be lucky to have both. (Whatever you do just avoid the dreaded McGegan and Christie versions!)

  • Don_Dano says:

    Well, we all have different tastes. I saw this production in Houston a few years ago with Susan Graham and David Daniels. My reactions changed quite a bit during the Sunday afternoon matinee.

    All through Act I: This is absolutely wonderful. I need to be more open minded about Handel.

    Half way through Act II: This is just like Act I.

    3/4 of the way through Act II: Is this ever going to end?

    Second Intermission: I think I’ll skip the rest of this and start the drive back to Port Lavaca.