BWW Reviews: Stunning Cast and Intriguing Production Make San Francisco Opera's XERXES Deliciously Fulfilling
Baroque opera productions can go wrong in so many ways. With their recitatives, lone arias and what some call "repetitious" or "continuous" sound, boredom can easily spell failure. The key, then, to an entertaining, attention-grabbing Baroque opera lies with the staging — the proper use of the stage, interaction of characters and energetic acting. Luckily, with its intriguing sets and singers that glide over their often improvised coloratura notes, San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's "Xerxes" knows how to make Baroque opera interesting.
The comedic love quadrangle of "Xerxes" helps the production along, but the acting and staging make the already comedic elements spectacular. Three and a half hours of Handel's majestic music flies by as Xerxes, the king, attempts to win the love of Romilda. But Romilda loves Arsamenes, Xerxes' brother. Arsamenes returns Romilda's love, but Romilda's sister also loves Arsamenes, and when Xerxes announces his intention to marry Romilda, Atalanta jumps at the chance to deceive and conspire against her sister's devotion to Arsamenes. Meanwhile, Xerxes' betrothed, Amastris, a foreign princess, has disguised herself as a soldier and discovered the king's treachery. Plenty of uproarious situations ensue as misunderstandings abound and true love finally triumphs. Confused? Don't worry. Before the singing even begins, characters stride onto the stage where their names and descriptions of their predicaments are projected on the curtain during the overture.
Singers make full use of the stage, enhancing the already comedic plot. Elviro the manservant dresses as a woman to deliver a secret letter, taking on a wonderfully humorous voice and pretending to sell flowers. Romilda chases her sister around the stage, boldly declaring that Arsamenes' heart belongs to her alone, while her sister teases her, saying she could change her feelings at a moment's notice to seduce Arsamenes for herself. Amastris has too much to drink and breathes in chorus members' faces while singing about Xerxes' treachery. The hilarity of the chorus' reactions is surpassed only by the supernumeraries' surprising placements and the leading singers' facial and hand expressions, which make each aria unique and take audiences deep into the emotions of characters.
Handel's masterpiece score gives each singer time in the spotlight, consequently delving into the motives and hearts of characters. The cast of singers, led by renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role, make each character relatable and interesting. Audiences will be so enamored with the wonder that is countertenor David Daniels's rare voice that they will forget to be bothered by the fact that Arsamenes sounds like a pants role (a male role sung by a woman). Graham's Xerxes, the real pants role in "Xerxes", contains such youthful joy and infatuation that Graham immediately fits the role of her opposite sex.
Lisette Oropesa sings Romilda with such strength and vigor, it's a wonder that "Xerxes" marks her company debut. Heidi Stober (Atalanta) blesses the audience with her playful and teasing character. Of all the characters, hers is the most fun as she plots and schemes to get her way. Stober knows how to endear the audience to such a devious, fickle character.
With solid coloratura that would make Handel proud, every singer majestically reigns on high with marvelous vocal control and technique. Although she has one of the smaller parts of the opera, Italian contralto Sonia Prina (Amastris) has a gripping effect. Prina decrescendos from the intense and passionate feelings to soft and gentle hopelessness of her character with awe-inducing perfection. Bass-baritones Michael Sumuel (Elviro) and Wayne Tigges (General Ariodates, the father of Romilda and Atalanta) also lend commanding voices and fun action to the production. After watching his proud and boisterous scenes, one can almost picture Tigges saying "I am the very model of the modern major general."
Handel's music and the bland, but purposeful, costumes of chorus members skillfully place the chorus in a way that cause it to blend in with the background sets. Dressed in gray and covered in gray makeup, the chorus makes the lead characters, with their more colorful attire, pop out against a lush set filled with white and green colors. Supernumeraries also stand out. Their white makeup and black jackets evoke a Blue Man Group feeling — only these are the white men group who gracefully change sets in full view of the audience and make a comedic mark or two of their own every so often.
This production, originally mounted by film and theater director Nicholas Hytner in 1985 and re-staged several times since then, cleverly draws from both the Baroque time period in which Handel wrote the piece and the Persian empire in which the story takes place. Characters don costumes inspired by 18th century fashion, and the framing of the set looks like the halls of a lavish home of the time period with lush, green trees pained on them. A green floor and various pull-out pieces, including several lawn chairs and red carpet ropes, enhance the old-fashioned feel, drawing from the 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens of London. At the same time, the sets use pieces inspired by Persian architecture, including two large Persian statues, some Persian busts and Persian inspired columns. The backdrop also lifts to reveal a miniature desert with small Persian buildings and statues. The contrasting time periods bring a modern look to the stage, despite their aged history, and, for some strange reason, they work together magnificently to create a magical new world.
The orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers, stays on par with the imaginative sets, embellished music and lively cast. Audiences are treated to much the same ornate pleasures that the Baroque time period celebrated. "Xerxes" is deliciously fulfilling.
San Francisco Opera
Approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes
Three acts with two 20 minute intermissions
Friday, November 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, November 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.
Susan Graham (Xerxes) and Lisette Oropesa (Romilda). Photo by Cory Weaver.