George Frideric Handel caused a stir in 1738 London with his opera, Xerxes, one of 46 operas he wrote in a long and productive career, but to captivate a modern audience—one glutted on action thrillers—requires a creative approach to the Baroque.
But we were entranced last Friday Nov. 11, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. Clever directing by Nicholas Hytner set the stage for impressive singing and the gentle beauty of Handel’s music, conducted by Patrick Summers with sensitivity and period authenticity. The music, despite its decorative runs and embellishments, had lovely line, a line that Handel clearly used as a tool for emotional expression.
Biblical and Greek texts describe Xerxes as a Persian despot, powerful and foolish. Handel was clearly familiar with both biblical and Greek texts, having written a short oratorio based on the Book of Esther early in his career and then expanding it in 1732, six years before his Xerxes.
The stir that Handel created was not altogether a welcome one: his audience was disturbed by his use of comic elements in what they considered a serious genre, and his opera fell into obscurity for the next two hundred years. But his serious comedy was our gain. Handel’s giddy romp opened with two brocaded fops. One, Xerxes, is the self-absorbed King of Persia, a mezzo-soprano thinly disguised as a man. The other, his brother Arsamenes, is a man singing in the counter-tenor range. Adding to this gender confusion arrives the deep-voiced contralto Amastris, a foreign princess betrothed to Xerxes—but she also appears dressed as a man, as she is traveling in disguise!
Those touches, perhaps meant to prod the dandified English aristocracy, adorned an already byzantine plot, in which the royal brothers vie for the love of a woman, while her sister contrives to steal her love from her. In fact, it was so confusing that our program synopsis showed a map of characters with directional love arrows. Purporting to display kingly lust overturned by love, this is really a tale of sibling rivalry and jealousy.
The title role was performed by renowned mezzo Susan Graham, a commanding Texan who played her mannish role to the hilt with a king’s forthright and peremptory power. A Metropolitan Opera regular, her interpretation of the Baroque repertoire is legendary, and she was last in town as a brilliant Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. David Daniels, one of the world’s leading countertenors, was cast as her brother and foil, desperate in love, but surprisingly acrobatic in voice. From this solidly built and bearded man came a fluting voice that was as expressive as it was at times disconcerting.
Fierce Italian contralto Sonia Prina stole the show from Daniels and Graham with her vigorous promise of vengeance, “Saprà delle mie offese.” Prina summed up her loss in her final aria, a bewitching duet with low flute, singing, “I am the cause of my own ruin. I love too well.”
The fawn-eyed love object, Lisette Oropesa, carried her part, a strong debut with the SF Opera, with emotional flip-flops, protestations of loyalty, and hardcore trills. Her sister, Atalanta, is a character drawn outside the careful roles of royalty, and carries with that the possibility of development. Played by the bewitching Heidi Stober, this naughty schemer twisted the cumbersome plot with style.
Success clearly depended on a solid foundation: the honesty of the music, the world-class singing, and the brilliant sets and costumes. Summers was clearly visible as he conducted, with his musicians and pit only partly submerged, in order to allow the delicate strains of harpsichord and archlute to suffuse the large hall.
Director Hytner augmented the motion of the baroque arias with creative staging, using stately onstage movements choreographed like dance. A host of courtiers, soldiers and servants moved through the stage, but never interrupted the vocal or visual flow of the principles. Clothed in duns and grays, courtiers’ faces were grayed-out with makeup, while servants were in whiteface and shaved heads. In that sea of gray and pale faces the principals popped colorfully. In Handel’s age, opera only addressed themes of gods or royalty, and the costumes re-created that class disconnect. The sets found a further parallel with deep desert and sculpted halls, with the white stones of Persepolis back-dropped by distant desert ruins and clouds that slowly purpled into night.
Photo top of David Daniels and Susan Graham; photo bottom of Heidi Stober. Both photos by Cory Weaver.