The bough friend

The Deutsche Opera an Rhein production of Handel’s Xerxes (which is shared with the Berlin Komische Oper), though I saw it three nights ago, has taken a while to settle down in my brain. That’s not because the Stefan Herheim production is particularly abstruse but rather, on the contrary, because at least at first viewing it seemed relatively straightforward. On the night, I was a little disappointed because I expected something more challenging.

All along, though, I realized that this production is head and shoulders above most everything else one sees in a season: the customary Herheim level of detail was present, and done as close to immaculately as one could hope for in live theater. The director calls his approach to the opera “baroque Muppet Show,” and that is in a sense what we got: there is a sort of ragtag performance of the Handel opera transpiring onstage, but there’s just as much juicy drama (and sight gags) lurking in the wings.

The set represents the full width of a baroque theater, with the stage area, framed by a painted canvas proscenium, at the center, and theater wings on either side. Only a little over a third of the full set can be seen at any given time as it pivots, taking the “stage” out of view and revealing either the stage right or stage left wings, the dressing area, props storage and even the stage door. It’s not unlike Ariadne auf Naxos, in fact, though unlike in the prologue to the Strauss opera, the perspective is constantly shifting.

Adding to the sense of intimacy is the configuration of the orchestra, which raises the floor of the pit the the same level as the first row of audience seats, as would have been done in a real baroque theater. The orchestra and conductor Konrad Junghänel enter by crossing the stage area and descending by visible stairs, and the orchestra is very much in view through the whole show.

The action begins in the wings, with the set already revolving to reveal the “stage.” The famous plane tree is painted canvas against a fluttery scrim depicting a pastoral setting. Xerxes walks on rather casually and not at all heroically: as the “warrior,” Valer Sabadus is all in midnight-blue silk, with a diagonal line of rhinestone buttons across his jacket. A full, wavy wig frames his boyish face, and when he reaches center stage he gives the audience a knowing little smirk. The recitative is delivered directly “out,” rather as a singer might perform at a pop concert, making direct eye contact with the audience in the still-illuminated auditorium.

As he launches into the “Ombra mai fu” proper, Sabadus slowly backs upstage into a different pool of light, but always “performing,” with elegant hand gestures and dreamy glances to the public. As the aria ends, he blissfully embraces the tree trunk, and, not to put too fine a point on it, begins to make love to the tree. (When he is discovered a few moments later, he shyly turns away to conceal a raging boner in his breeches.)

Now this sounds like rather obvious camp, and I agree that this (as always in Herheim) does include a good deal of camp value. But what confused me until now (I hope) was how that camp was deployed; that is, what the camp was supposed to mean. At first I thought it was just free-standing, i.e., purely for entertainment value, but now I think I see a pattern.

Serse (as it is in the original; here it was performed mostly in German, though some of the arias were in Italian)  is different from some of the earlier Handel operas in that, in contrast to works like Rinaldo or Alcina, it contains no overt mythic content. Rather, it’s a melodrama of intrigue, all about members of the ancient nobility conniving and forging letters and disguising themselves. So at first glance the dramatic content of the piece might seem a little shallow for the deep-delving Herheim of Rusalka or Parsifal.

But only at first glance. In this production Herheim seems to conflate the character of Xerxes (the “King of Kings”) with the creator of the role in the opera, Senesino  Caffarelli, who was known for his outrageous indulgences in what we would call today “diva antics.” In other words, star power is, well, power, and the plot of the opera, which revolves around Xerxes’ violent whims, is an allegory of a superstar performing artist.

And so there is nothing of the general in Sabadus’ portrayal: rather, he presents Xerxes as a sexually ambiguous charmer: it’s impossible to tell whether he’s coming on to, say, Romilda or purely making fun of her. Or maybe he’s doing both: all we know is that he’s got the whole cast running around frantically catering to his whims.

What made this click for me was remembering an interview I did with Roberto Alagna some years ago. For the first fifteen minutes or so I was terrifically uncomfortable because he seemed so obviously to be coming on to me. Yes, it’s absurd, because Alagna is straight and even if not why would he have any romantic interest in me? Eventually it dawned on me that, like a lot of stars, he has this sort of superpower of charm that he uses to get audiences to love him, and he just had the gain turned up a little too high for a one-on-one. (Even so, I wrote a gushing interview, so setting the charm on “seduce” worked for him after all.)

So Xerxes is about the enormous power of being a star and the lesser (though still formidable) power of being a performer of any sort. As such, the show was arranged to make the title character simultaneously exasperating and fascinating, the latter mostly through highly-polished comic bits. It was established, for example, that Xerxes (or rather “the singer of Xerxes”) had highly sensitive hearing, so when another singer performed a high note or a brilliant roulade, he would flinch in pain.

During an aria in the second half of the opera, Sabadus strolled down into the orchestra pit, flirted a bit with one of the horn players, then climbed over the rail to sing directly to some women in the first couple of rows of the auditorium. If that sounds like something Frank Sinatra would do, that was pretty much the effect. (It also happened that when Junghänel signaled for the da capo of the aria, Xerxes just flatly said, “Nein,” and walked away. No ritornello, no nothing: I just don’t feel like it. (Of course this surprised got a big hand, to which Sadadus grinned and rolled his eyes adorably.)

I cannot praise Sabadus highly enough for this performance: a whole long and very high Handel role is murder to sing just standing there, but he never once just stood. He was always the puppy dog Xerxes, always flouncing and grinning and winking, intoxicated with the power he held over the audience. (And over the other singers too: in one aria he gave Amastre a toe-curling orgasm by remote control as it were, getting her off with just his voice and few magical gestures.)

Well, to catalog all the gags in a Herheim production would take until the end of time. Near the end of the first half (the piece was one with a single intermission), Xerxes sang the raging aria “Se bramate d’amar,” threatening Romilda who refuses to give in to his advances. This was staged with Atalanta, Romilda’s sister who is in love with Xerxes, running on and off stage delivering various murder weapons to Xerxes, hoping he will off her rival.

But nothing works: the pistol fires into the air and kills a passing bird, sending feathers fluttering to the stage; a cannon knocks down a backdrop and blows a hole in the back of the theater; a cobra perishes when Xerxes waves it around too violently while singing brilliant divisions; and finally a crossbow succeeds only in dislodging a plaster putto from the proscenium.

Again, what makes all this work was absolutely perfect timing: I can’t imagine how long the singers must have had to rehearse for just this one number alone. And this level of gags went on all night, some very subtle (like the one chorister who always had to stand in fifth position) and others as broad as anything that ever bedeviled Wile E. Coyote. And, understand, all this time there is a constant back-and-forth between “opera character” and “backstage character,” similar to but far more subtle and consistent the parallel dramas in Ken Russell’s film of The Boy Friend.

You would think that this approach would wear out it welcome very quickly, but the amazing this is that it doesn’t. Eventually, late in the second half, fatigue starts to set in, but that’s something that is going to happen in most fairly complete performances of Handel operas. Any boredom was redeemed by the evocatively Pirandellian finale of the work.

As Romilda sang her conciliatory aria “Caro voi siete all’alma,” the set revolved again, but this time the leading singers in their fanciful baroque costumes slowly were carried off the stage. Meanwhile into the “backstage” area came the chorus, now dressed in modern street clothes, as if to reclaim the theater space from these invaders from the past. (“Ritorna a noi la calma,” they sang, Give us back our peace.) The drama continued into the curtain call: first the chorus bowed, then scattered, leaving the singers/characters of the opera in a line upstage. By now the houselights were up, and these oddly-dressed creatures stared in confusion and disbelief: were you out there all that time, watching us?

That, I think, is the key to this production: yes, there is enormous power, the power of a Xerxes, even, in being a certain type of star performer. That power is not inherent to the performer, but rather is on loan from the audience. We, the people out there in the dark (or the light) are the real rulers, the kings of kings in fact.

And what a pleasure it is to note that this performance was every bit as strong musically as it was dramatically. Maestro Junghänel’s approach to the score is radiantly flexible; even the most formal pieces sound improvised on the spot. As with the Platée in Stuttgart, there was no sense of “us” orchestra and “them” singers: everyone made the show together. (That included the indefatigable stagehands,who got their own curtain call.)

I am in love with Valer Sabadus, and not just because he cranked the charm up to 11 à la Alagna. The voice is a true soprano, light and delicate, with a slightly veiled quality and a shimmering, sweet vibrato. It is not at all a big sound; even in this small theater one had to sit forward for the voice, but it was more than worth the effort. There is something about this voice you want to caress, which of course makes Xerxes’ nonstop seductiveness make all the more sense.

A more powerful but slightly more generic countertenor issued from the Arsamene, Terry Wey, who had such easy flexibility and a brilliant top he would likely steal this show from any lesser Xerxes than Mr. Sabado. Even more voluptuous in sound was the bass Hagen Matzeit, who sang Elviro’s “drag” flower song in a plummy contralto. Torben Jürgens rollicked through Ariodate’s fast coloratura so well you almost resented the laughs at Xerxes’ pained expressions.

The women’s voices were a bit more utilitarian. Heidi Elisabeth Meier was at her poised best in Romilda’s more plaintive numbers, though she wielded bright coloratura when needed. Anke Krabbe sang Atalanta boldly but with a hard tone, though that would perhaps be preferable to Laura Nykänen‘s wispy mezzo which tended to disappear when Amastre’s lines sank low.

This was a different, sunnier Herheim than what I had seen before, and (on reflection) I rather like it. This production could definitely play in the United States, though presumably here the singing would revert to the original Italian instead of the macaronic mix of that language and German used in this edition.

MUSIKALISCHE LEITUNG Konrad Junghänel
INSZENIERUNG Stefan Herheim
BÜHNE Heike Scheele
KOSTÜME Gesine Völlm
LICHT Franck Evin
CHORLEITUNG Christoph Kurig
DRAMATURGIE Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach

SERSE Valer Sabadus
ARSAMENE Terry Wey
AMASTRE Laura Nykänen
ARIODATE Torben Jürgens
ROMILDA Heidi Elisabeth Meier
ATALANTA Anke Krabbe
ELVIRO Hagen Matzeit

CHOR Chor der Deutschen Oper am Rhein
ORCHESTER Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik

Photos: Hans Jörg Michel