Carry On Up the Bospherus – Handel’s Xerxes (Barbican Great Performers, 28 November)

Xerxes (Serse)

Xerxes, King of Persia – Anne Sofie von Otter
Arsamene, his brother – Lawrence Zazzo
Amastre, princess – Silvia Tro Santafé
Ariodate, Persian general – Giovanni Furlanetto
Romilda, his daughter – Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Atlanta, her sister – Sandrine Piau
Elviro, Arsamene’s servant – Antonio Abete

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 28 November, 2003
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Les Arts Florissants’ flourishing relationship with the Barbican Centre (pun completely intended) blossoms further next October with a fully staged opera in the Theatre, Rameau’s Les Paladins, in celebration of the 25th-anniversary of William Christie’s founding of the company. Meanwhile, Caen’s finest brought Handel’s Xerxes to the Barbican Hall for one concert performance, following a staged production at both the Théâtre de Caen and Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées by Gilbert Deflo.

Although the cast was word perfect, without scores, and brought with them Deflo’s actions, there was no indication of what the fully-staged production looked like; there were no production photographs in the programme which should have been an easy addition.So whether Deflo, like Nicholas Hytner in his famous (and long-lasting) English National Opera production, chose a setting contemporary to Handel, or stuck with the supposed time (Ancient Persia as Xerxes amasses his forces to invade Greece, 5th-century BC) I cannot tell. That Deflo had succeeded in mining the wit of the piece there is no doubt; the assured acting by this choice cast was full of great comic moments and, for the second time in less than a week – the first being ENO’s Twilight of the Gods – the Barbican Hall showed that opera can be just as satisfying without a full staging, especially when a committed cast is able to perform without scores.

Xerxes (or Serse to be true to the original Italian – here sung, with English surtitles) does not concern itself with the facts of the Persian King’s rebuffed Greek invasion (although his bridge of boats across the Hellespont is mentioned).Rather we get a twee comedy of a love pentagonal, including a pair of brothers (Xerxes and Arsamene), a pair of sisters (Romilda and Atalanta) and a princess, Amastre. You see – are you ready for this? – Xerxes and Arsamene both love Romilda, but she only loves Arsamene, who is also loved by her sister Atalanta. Meanwhile, Xerxes rejects Amastre to pursue Romilda (including the banishment of his brother), while Amastre disguises himself as a boy (ah! the second trouser role!) to seek revenge.

Suffice to say that all the shenanigans – very much “Carry On up the Bospherus” – leads to Xerxes having to agree to Arsamene’s marriage of Romilda and a humiliating apology to Amastre, who is happy to accept him as her groom. Atalanta is thus thwarted and, in Deflo’s hands, has to fend of Arsamene’s servant, Elviro, as she resigns herself to finding another lover.

Regarded as Handel’s only comedy (not quite true, as Anthony Hicks’s note pointed out), Xerxes is akin to Verdi’s Falstaff in another way, in that both were their respective composer’s last operas. Admittedly, Handel did continue to compose, in the form of the English Oratorio, for another two decades, but there may be something to both signing off with incredible masterpieces that broke the mould.

Here – whether it be Anne Sofie von Otter’s resplendent, gold-jacketed Xerxes (the opera’s first trouser-role), Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz’s affronted Romilda, or Sandrine Piau’s flirtatious Atalanta (who, in the final aria of Act One attempted the seduction of the orchestra’s leader, Hiro Kurosaki, including planting a kiss on him at the close!) – we were treated to a completely enjoyable performance.

Silvia Tro Santafé’s compact and bristly Amastre, Lawrence Zazzo’s beautifully-toned Arsamene and the comic-turn by bass Antonio Abete, attempting falsetto when disguised as a flower-seller, all contributed to a wonderful evening. William Christie even joined in the action – at one point to hand a letter to Xerxes (which makes him realise how Amastre still loves him), but most often swivelling to conduct the backs of the singers, rather obtrusively and pointlessly.

Xerxes thus followed the laudable series of Baroque operas brought to the Barbican Hall.Before the afore-mentioned Les Paladins, Christie and his cohorts are back for a pair of Charpentier one-acters (20 January 2004): La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers and the work that gives the ensemble its name, Les Arts Florissants. Unmissable!

Christie also brings Handel’s Radamisto to the Royal Festival Hall on 22 March, in a concert performance from Zurich Opera. Miss this at your peril!

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