This production of Xerxes is an example of a rare confluence of the operatic planets, proving just how wonderful opera can be when everything is done right. It also proves that Handel opera can be as dramatically pleasing as any other opera when approached with loving respect, as it has been here by director Roger Hodgeman.
First performed in 1738, Xerxes, whilst based very loosely on the life and times of the 480BC Persian King, is essentially about love. Xerxes is an eccentric and casually despotic King who is capable of being “aroused by a tree”. Xerxes is loved by his betrothed Amantre but instead loves his brother Arsamane’s lover Romilda, whose younger sister in turn loves Arsamane. This all provides the excuse for much ado (and baroque flavoured cross-dressing) about the fickleness of love, jealousy, heartbreak and the triumph of true love. It differs from many other Handel operas in that its seriousness is deliberately lightened by Buffo wit: blessed with a good pace, it speaks easily to modern audiences.
Ruling the night are Tiffany Speight and Dimity Shepherd as the thwarted young lovers Romilda and Arsamane. Shepherd is sexy and soulful in this pants role – her singing impeccable, she shows what a fine actress she is in Act II with her moving arias of heartbreak. Speight matches her in a radiant performance with seemingly effortless singing. Their love scenes light the stage, culminating in their lovers spat duet in Act III – surely a highlight of the night.
Crowd favourite counter-tenor Tobias Cole is a delightful Xerxes, singing this virtuosic role with bravura. His lithe physicality adds to his appropriately comic portrayal of this dotty monarch.
As Arsamane’s faithful sidekick, Elviro, baritone Gary Rowley gets to show off his Buffo talents, bringing down the house in his disguise as a falsetto voiced flower seller. As the patriarch Ariodate, bass Steven Gallop brings his considerable international experience to bear in an authoritative performance; and the always classy Roxane Hislop, as the spurned Amastre, continues to charm.
The only casting glitch was Anna Margolis as the petulant, scheming younger sister Atalanta. Hampered by an ugly costume, and putting in a more than creditable performance, she seemed to not be quite in the same vocal or dramatic league as her fellow cast members.
Moving on to production aspects, congratulations to VO for the inspired choice of the Melbourne Recital centre for this season. Whilst the space itself presents limitations to the design, this was overcome by a simple set by John Verryt. Clean lines, drawing on Persian allusions, allowed for scene and mood changes to be indicated by minimal manipulations of rises, further illustrated through a beautiful lighting design by Matt Scott. In an age where set design and technological wizardry by cleaver young things has seemed to dominate the staging of opera more and more, Xerxes was a refreshing change for this reviewer. I’m so relieved when the focus is allowed to fall on the performers – opera’s ongoing appeal does ultimately rest with the power of the music and talents of the singers.
Acoustically, the Recital Centre is ideal for this opera – from the first strains of the Academia Arcadia under the baton of baroque music specialist John O’Donnell, I was in musical heaven, and the singers shone in this acoustic that is so flattering to the human voice.
Finally, bravo for Roger Hodgman’s intelligent direction. Obviously not afraid, as so many other fashionable directors seem to be, of the da capo aria, Hodgeman used the reiteration of the first section these of arias to provide valuable character development. His imaginative approach drew outstanding performances from an already excellent cast, delivered with an infectious joy rarely seen in Melbourne opera theatres.
Unfortunately, the season in Melbourne is very short, so my gushing endorsement will do nothing to boost door sales. This is however, a co-production with the NBR New Zealand Opera – I trust NZ audiences will enjoy it as much as I did.