San Francisco Opera’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s baroque masterpiece Xerxes is the high point of the company’s fall season to date─one of those rare opera moments where music, singing, acting, and staging all come together to create magic. Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian), dating to 1738, is an opera bursting with beautiful music and a positively twisted love plot. The opera is very loosely based on King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is next to nothing in the libretto or music that recalls that setting. If you haven’t seen a Baroque opera before, this production of Xerxes, which is the most light-hearted of all Handel’s operas, is delightful in all regards. Nicholas Hytner’s production, directed by Michael Walling, originates from English National Opera 1985 production and was last seen in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.
On opening day, Principal Guest Conductor/harpsichordist Patrick Summers, who last appeared at SF Opera in September conducting the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, was exceptional as was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Summers played his harpsichord for some of the recitatives along with David Kadarauch, principal cellist. Xerxes is well-known for having been sung originally by a castrato and the role is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor. Mezzo soprano Susan Graham who specializes in castrati roles was a perfect “Xerxes. ” She was joined by countertenor David Daniels as “Arsamenes,” soprano Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), soprano Heidi Stober as “Atalanta,” contralto Sonia Prina as “Amastris,” Waynes Tigges as “Ariodates, and Michael Sumuel as “Elviro,” and they all put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives. Susan Graham, David Daniels, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina sang these roles in Houston and were exceptional together again in San Francisco.
The opera began with a clever and humorous touch: at the starting overture, the characters ran out on stage, one by one, as a projected placard on the curtain behind them explained to the audience in a single sentence who they are and what their relationship in this love romp is. King Xerxes is chasing Romidle (his servant Artiodate’s daughter) but she loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who also loves her. Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also wants Arasmene, in large part to have some of what her sister has. Amastre, is engaged to Xerxes but he has betrayed her and she returns disguised as man to spy on him. It’s romantic chaos, not to mention tests of sisterly and brotherly love and rank and loyalty as these characters plot, scheme, align with and betray each other, all hoping to end up with their true love. In the end, Arsamene and Romilda are wed and Xerxes’ love is unrequited love.
The opera’s action has been transported from King Xerxes’ Persia, circa 475 B.C. to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century, which was Handel’s time. David Fielding’s set is brilliant. Executed in tones of creme and green, it evokes both the historical period it is referencing and the sophisticated vibe of a Veranda magazine spread. It includes many artifacts and references to the Middle East─a region considered exotic, fascinating and dangerous in 18th century London. During this era, England was captivated by the Grand Tour and pleasure gardens like Vauxhall would have displayed all types of artifacts and botanical specimens too. In this set, you’ll see an enormous winged lion topiary recalling the sculptures of Persepolis and a fascinating model of a famous bridge designed for King Xerxes to span the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) which allowed Xerxes and his Persian army to cross from Asia to Europe and invade Greece in 480 B.C. What a surprise when the bridge collapses onstage, mirroring an obscure moment in ancient history that aficionados of historian Herodotus have all but memorized.
Musically, Xerxes is known nowadays mostly for its intoxicating aria “Ombra mai fu,” which is an ode in the form of a song to a tree that Xerxes loved. Whenever I hear this aria I envision the huge tree from Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2002 video installation “Tooba” (the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur’an) instead of the puny ornamental potted stick tree in this staging. Despite the tree, the four minute aria was sung vibrantly by Graham but her voice did not project well due to her position on stage. Throughout the opera, Graham was in top form, particularly when paired in aria with counter-tenor David Daniels.
American sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as “Romilda” were fabulous in both their comedic presence and their hilarious dueling recitative arias expressing their love for Arsamenes were a joy to listen to even in multiple iterations because of the richness of their coloraturas. Special mention goes to Michael Summel who charmed all in his debut as “Elviro,” Arsamentes’ lumbering servant who dons a dress and bonnet and poses as a flower seller.
Xerxes runs three hours and forty minutes, with two intermissions, but the time seems to fly.
Details: Xerxes is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $29 to $330. Information: www.sfopera.com. Click to purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm