Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Under the X in Xerxes

May 03, 2010

Susan Graham as Xerxes
Photo: Felix Sanchez/HGO 2010

Before leaving Houston this weekend, I caught the second performance of Handel’s Xerxes on Sunday with a remarkable and largely American cast. It provided a nice complement to Dallas Opera’s premiere of the new Jake Heggie work, Moby Dick, from a few days before, in that it, too, featured some of the best elements of American opera. And while Xerxes is not an American artifact in any way, its almost exclusively American cast, made a case for the high quality of singing coming out of this country in general. Opera in the biggest houses may continue to be a high flying international affair, but American talent can more than hold its own here and abroad. Houston's cast was built around the incomparable Susan Graham in the title role with a supporting ensemble including David Daniels, Heidi Stober, Laura Claycomb, and Philip Cutlip. Graham had been announced as sick on opening night, but had apparently recovered by Sunday afternoon. Her rich and lovely tone carefully shaped both comic and dramatic moments and provided the anchor to the performance. Daniels had several wonderful moments of his own, and Claycomb let fly with coloratura runs above and beyond what you’d expect in this Baroque gem. The only non-American in the featured cast, Sonia Prina, lent her substantial contralto to a number of pivotal scenes.

William Lacey led the orchestra in a new adaptation of the score based on revisions to the Charles Mackerras edition from the 1980s, which allowed for more period-practice improvisation from the cast among other things. It was a spirited performance from an orchestra familiar with music from this period, but not quite as rough and tumble as I personally like. The production, originally designed by Nicholas Hytner, is an award-winning oldie if not always a goodie. Created for English National Opera in 1985, the staging has seen better days in its travels (including a DVD from the production's first revival in 1988 which I believe is now out of print), although it is still very effective overall. It’s witty with in-jokes about Handel including a replica of the famous Louis-Francois Roubiliac statue the characters admire in the opening and closing scenes. Hytner's work was admired for recognizing the significant comic elements Handel wrote into the opera, which were controversial in his own era for having violated the contemporary rules for an Italian-language opera seria. Twenty years down the line, the balance is still an issue and the cast goes to town with numerous lighthearted moments. I sometimes felt Michael Walling's direction leaned a little too heavily on the comedy. Touching moments in the show often face an uphill battle against those far more likely to poke fun at the ridiculous aspects of the work. Still, it isn't bad to look at and compensated by an afternoon of beautiful music.



That is a terrific cast, and one I'd love to see in any Handel opera. Xerxes is one I have not yet gotten to...
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