Review: Graham, Daniels, Prina Excel in Elegant, Witty “Xerxes” – San Francisco Opera, October 30, 2011

Since I am on record as proposing that Sir Nicholas Hytner’s physical production of Handel’s “Xerxes” for London’s English National Opera be included on a list of “world treasures”, no one should be surprised at my high regard for San Francisco Opera’s  presentation of Hytner’s conceptualization.

I had reported last year on the production’s revival for Houston (See my review at “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010.) Its Texas outing included in its stellar cast Susan Graham as Xerxes, David Daniels as Xerxes’ brother Arsamenes, Heidi Stober as Atalanta and Sonia Prina as Amastris. All four of these artists reprised their roles at the San Francisco Opera.

In Houston, the conductor was William Lacey, rather than Houston Grand Opera’s musical director, Patrick Summers, who at that time was conducting the world premiere performance series of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” at the Dallas Opera (which, by the way, travels this February to the San Diego Opera and will be seen subsequently at the San Francisco Opera).

San Francisco Opera performances of Handel operas on the main stage of the War Memorial Opera House did not occur until a British production of “Giulio Cesare” arrived in 1982. Since then seven Handel operas have been part of eight San Francisco Opera seasons, six of them in the 21st century alone. Over that time period, a number of riddles as to how to present baroque operas in the large British and American opera houses have been solved.

Certainly the most obvious riddle was what type of singer would perform the roles originally written for high-voiced male castrati. Even if any men who met the physical requirements existed, none have been  properly trained to sing Handel operas for over two centuries. In the 1960s and 1970s, bassos such as Norman Treigle and John Ostendorf were enlisted for the lead roles, but as more of Handel was revived, the prevailing opinion was that transposing music designed for high voices to low voices was not the best formula for developing a “modern” Handel sound.

Once it was established that there was an audience for the works, there emerged an international group of singers whose vocal ranges and flexibility assured that they could perform Handel with integrity, singing the arias at the pitch and with the kind of ornamentation that Handel intended. All of the San Francisco cast displayed accomplishment in producing the modern Handel sound, but three have gained special competence in singing the old castrati roles.

In this production, as in Houston, the lead role is taken by New Mexican mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, in her second Handel assignment in San Francisco, previously appearing as the Knight Ariodant (See my review at Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008.)

[Below: Susan Graham as King Xerxes; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Graham, a specialist in opera roles in which she plays a male character, displayed her warm mezzo voice with its vibrant coloratura. (See my interview in which she discusses this production at Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham.)

A curiosity of this opera is that Handel’s most famous solo aria, Ombra mai fu, a song to a tree that Xerxes is supposed to have loved (one of the few factoids actually associated with the historical ruler) is the very first number in the opera. Hytner characteristically puts a small tree in a museum display case for Graham’s Xerxes to serenade.

Her King Xerxes turns out to be a rival in love to Xerxes’ brother, Prince Arsamenes, wonderfully played by South Carolinian counter-tenor David Daniels in one of the Handel roles he feels best fits his legendary voice (See my interview at Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels.)

Although the two artists had both sung at the War Memorial Opera House, this is the first time they have appeared together here. Their shared  first scene aria (not a duet), Io le diro che l’amo, demonstrated how beautifully their different high voice range and timbres blended, and was immediate confirmation that the contemporary practice of balancing female and counter-tenor voices for the baroque era operas then sung by castrati is the right solution for 21st century performance.

[Below: the brothers Arsamenes (David Daniels, standing) and Xerxes (Susan Graham, sitting on lawn chair) discuss the women in their life; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The third performer with an international reputation as a baroque specialist is Italian mezzo Sonia Prina, who had appeared appeared in 2008 as Graham’s rival Polinesso in Handel’s “Ariodante”, with Graham the male hero and Prina the male villain. In this performance Prina plays the King Xerxes’ betrothed, whom he intends to jilt, but who confounds Xerxes’ machinations by disguising herself as a soldier, ultimately to reclaim the wifely position she had originally been promised.

[Below: Amastris (Sonia Prina) disguises herself as a soldier; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Prina, with a deep mezzo that can descend with power below the staff, once more displayed extraordinary skill at baroque ornamentation. Unlike Polinesso, the love-crossed Amastris is hardly a villain, but, playing a woman scorned, Prina brought the aggressive stances and forceful presence that made her “Ariodante” performances so triumphant.

Notes on the Production

“Xerxes” is the most light-hearted of Handel’s operas. Unlike his other works for the stage, Handel’s late career “Xerxes”, abounds in comic elements. Instead of it being a serious-themed baroque opera, it often seems more like Mozart’s amalgamations of serious and comic elements in “Don Giovanni” that was created not quite half a century later.

Hytner’s approach to the opera’s plot (whose relation to the historical King of Persia that so annoyed the Greeks is ephemeral) is to move all of the action from ancient times to that of 18th century London that was contemporary to the opera’s only five  performances in that century. (Performance number six in the opera’s history did not occur until the 20th century.)

As conceived by Hytner and realized in the always charming sets of production designer David Fielding, this production is set in an English pleasure garden, in this case London’s Vauxhall Gardens in which Roubillac’s famous statue of Handel is located. (A replica of Roubillac’s statue shows up in one of this production’s scenes, although with an ancient Greek name of Alexander’s teacher on the pedestal that is an homage to Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast”.) Exporting the production’s revival to Houston and San Francisco was the responsibility of stage director Michael Walling.

During the opera’s overture, all eight characters are introduced, with their names appearing in large medallions while each arrives costumed in character. A bit of clowning in this introductory session assures the audience that this will be a lively baroque production.

There are several in-jokes that a newcomer to this production should understand. The English pleasure gardens were rather like ancient theme parks with lots of different activities occurring as 18th century Londoners strolled through them. This was a period of time when London museums and botanical gardens were collecting specimens from all over the world, so that in every scene there are items in museum display cases or potted plants to observe. These include the such Persian artifacts as a model of the ruins of Persepolis and the bridge designed for Xerxes to span the Dardanelles.

[Below: King Xerxes (Susan Graham, center left in white coast) prepares for a knighthood ceremony for several officers of the regiment of General Ariodates (Wayne Tigges, in red uniform); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Throughout the opera the Londoners appear, costumed in always completely grey 18th century styles.They sit in lawn chairs to observe ceremonies. They inspect the exhibits, referencing their guidebooks. They read the newspaper The Inquirer, this production’s tip of the hat to Addison’s Spectator.

Against this backdrop the eight characters plot and scheme. General Ariodates (amusingly played by Wayne Tigges in his company debut) has two daughters, Romilda (Lisette Oropesa in her company debut) and Atalanta (Heidi Stober).

[Below: Wayne Tigges is General Ariodates; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Stirring the Plot

Because both Romilda and Atalanta love the same man, Daniels’ Prince Arsamenes, and both Arsamenes and his brother, King Xerxes are romantically interested in Romilda, Atalanta intrigues in favor of a Xerxes-Romilda marriage, while Arsamenes, Romilda and Amastris are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.

[Below: Atalanta (Heidi Stober, left) and Romilda (Lisette Oropesa, right) both wish to marry Prince Arsamenes (David Daniels, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Along the way, as if we are observing an Elizabethan comedy, disguises, misdirected messages, and other confusions occur.

[Below: Arsamenes (David Daniels, far left) hides behind a display case for an objet d’art, to overhear the conversation between Romilda (Lisette Oropesa, center, in blue dress) and Xerxes (Susan Graham, to the left of the small display case); based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Although each of the characters have been unleashed to play their roles broadly, there is, in a departure to the traditions of baroque opera, an unambiguously comic character, Arsamenes’ servant Elviro, hilariously realized by Michael Sumuel, in a couple of scenes disguising himself with dress, bonnet and falsetto voice as a flower seller.

[Below: Adopting a disguise so as to deliver a letter to one sister, Elviro (Michael Sumuel) agrees to give it to the other, Atalanta (Heidi Stober, right) with mischievous consequences; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Patrick Summers conducted the opera with distinction, often bouncing jauntily to some of Handel’s rhythmic passages. He also played the harpsichord for some of the recitatives, accompanied by San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s principal cellist David Kadarauch, positioned at his right hand. (If one is creating a guidebook as to how to both play the harpsidhord and immediately change to conducting the orchestra, it should be noted that, with hands committed to the keyboard, to be ready for quick transitions, Summers would place the baton in his mouth.)

As in Houston, Michael Leonard played the ancient theorbo, arch lute and baroque guitar. Jonathan Kelly played the second harpsichord.

This fall both the Los Angeles and San Francisco opera companies have imported classic productions by London’s Sir Nicholas Hytner. (See Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011.) The inventiveness of both these productions whets the appetite for more of Sir Nicholas’ ideas for staging operas to be brought to American shores.

I recommend the San Francisco Opera mounting of Handel’s “Xerxes” unreservedly.