Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before

October 31, 2011

Susan Graham as Xerxes Photo:Cory Weaver/SFO 2011
Handel’s Xerxes made its way to San Francisco for the first time ever this weekend. It’s too bad its taken so long for a work with so much incredibly beautiful music to get here, but it made it. And if you're a person who isn't particularly drawn to Baroque opera or haven't seen one before, this particular production may be an ideal one to start with. With a solid, enjoyable cast, including Susan Graham in the title role alongside countertenor David Daniels, the show takes some of the usual excesses of the 18th Century and makes them a bit more approachable for a modern audience. That's not to say that anyone has taken great liberties with the score or libretto (it still has one of those elliptical, overly complicated plots), but that the production, originally by Nicholas Hytner and now revived under Michael Walling, plays up Handel's comic elements in a friendly, well-meaning way.

The show is somewhat of an import having been seen most recently in Houston in 2010 with the same two stars as well as Heidi Stober as Atalanta and Sonia Prina as Amastris. Of course, to call this show an import from Houston is not really accurate. In fact, Hytner's production, originally for English National Opera is over 25 years old and has been around the block more than a few times. The show is still frisky and fun, though I continue to feel that it does look rather worn around the edges including its increasingly distressed AstroTurf curtain. Hytner went to some length to capture the spirit of the Enlightenment as opposed to ancient Persia where the admittedly non-historical events of the opera are set. Hytner moves the action into spaces reminiscent of the 18th Century Vauxhall pleasure gardens with the characters milling about as spectators in some public showing of Middle Eastern artifacts kept in a series of display cases between canvas lounge chairs and make-shift cafes. But as when I saw the show last time around, there was a tendency to oversimplify Xerxes into little more than a zany comedy. To be fair, this issue was a controversy for Handel as well who inserted much more comedy into Xerxes than was typical for an opera seria at the time, enraging some critics. But there are still moments of pathos and sincere emotional pain for the characters in the show and they still seemed out of place in this version.

As for the quality of the musical performance, much can be said for both Graham and Stober who gave involved, vocally warm turns. Both showed off their excellent comic timing as did Michael Samuel who gets a great bit of drag to do in Act II. Many in the audience were pleased with the robust Sonia Prina whose dark almost husky tone could be heard easily throughout the auditorium. But in all honesty, while I felt there was no one in the cast who was bad, no one really grabbed me by the throat and shook me up either. The other additions to the cast this time around, besides Samuel, included Lisette Oropesa as Romilda and Wayne Tigges as her father Ariodates. Another new face, ironically enough, was Houston Opera’s Music Director Patrick Summers who is conducting all the performances in the San Francisco run. He’s not necessarily the first name you think of when it comes to Baroque opera, and his approach tends to smooth out rough edges as the expense of tension here, but he keeps things moving in an intricate show. So as an introduction to Baroque opera, you could do much worse than this eager-to-please Xerxes. So if you haven't gotten started on the superb operatic works of Handel, here's your chance.


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