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S & H International Opera Review

Handel, Xerxes, New York City Opera, soloists, New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, New York; March 30, 2004 (HS)



New York City Opera took a good run at Handel's Xerxes, achieving enough success to send the audience on the piece's opening night out into a chilly March 30 evening with smiles on their faces. Some in the uneven cast missed the Baroque opera spirit, making their gestures, both musical and dramatic, so broad that they lost the sense of spirited elegance that makes Handel Handel. But the ones who got it managed to carry the day.

Americans find Handel operas a challenge. They're long, and audiences need something to get past a certain sameness in the music from one number to the next. Some productions go for elaborate scenic effects. This one, designed by Thomas Lynch, used a single set, a long brick wall with a two-story house attached stage left, Xerxes' favorite tree stage right, hovering over the entire proceedings. Other productions aim for inventive dramatic or clever comedy direction. This one, by Stephen Wadsworth, got a lot of things right but veered occasionally into vulgarity. His translation into English mixed modern Americanisms with long stretches of classical English, a bit too obviously reaching for rhymes.

The best way to liven up a Handel opera is with great singers who can put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives. Although no one in this cast qualified as great, about half them showed real Handelian panache. Whenever soprano Lisa Saffer, mezzo soprano Beth Clayton and counter tenor David Walker were on stage and singing, all was well with the world. Unfortunately, the two characters at the center -- mezzo Sarah Connelly and Amy Burton -- were overshadowed by those around them.

In the story, Xerxes, the king, wants to marry Romilda, a hot tomato and the daughter of one of his servants, but she doesn't want him. She is in love with Xerxes' brother, Arsamene. But so is Romilda's sister, Atalanta, who thinks she's smarter and more alluring than she really is. A mysterious gentleman shows up who turns out to be the lovely Princess Amastre, whom Xerxes had promised to marry but has abandoned. She disguises herself as a man to find out what's going on.

That's the basic set-up. Along the way there are way too many written messages passed to the wrong lover and contrived misunderstandings. For further comedy, we have Elviro, the manservant of Arsamene, who spends much of the second act dressed as a woman flower seller. We also have the father of Romilda and Atalanta, who misreads Xerxes' cryptic instructions and marries Romilda to Arsamene, leaving Amastre to confront Xerxes and embarrass him into marrying her.

Got all that? It doesn't matter much because mostly it's a series of set-ups for one more da capo aria. The problem with Connelly was she didn't provide a consistent enough personality as Xerxes for all the action to revolve around. She has a lightish mezzo, which makes her seem weak next to the other low voices around her. "Ombra mai fui" (badly translated here) came and went with virtually no applause. And Burton, whose lyric soprano voice amply conveyed Romilda's beauty and allure, doesn't have the sparkle to her coloratura to make the second and third iterations of these da capo arias interesting enough, so she seems one-dimensional.

By contrast, Clayton employed a rich, dark honeyed mezzo with marvelously clear coloratura to make Amastre, the jilted princess, into a truly noble character -- better dramatically and vocally than Xerxes. Walker displayed a pure, supple countertenor with no hootiness and an impressive command of fioratura. He is a singer to watch. His voice had more richness than Xerxes', which added to the cast's imbalance. And Saffer, a lyric coloratura who sings major Handel roles often, invested Atalanta with pinpoint intonation and plenty of power and drive to outline her character's envy and flightiness. So you had an Atalanta who was more appealing vocally than Romilda.

Michael Zegarski made a worthy company debut as Elviro, the manservant, showing a flair for physical comedy and a focused baritone. In the small role of Arodante, the father, baritone Jake Gardner provided the necessary gravitas.

Gary Thor Wedow, former associate conductor of Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, kept things moving nicely in the pit, and he showed commendable sensitivity to the singers. We could, however, have heard a greater variety of colors from the orchestra.

By all accounts, NYCO has done well by Handel in previous seasons, with Alcina, Partenope and Ariodante. That's why I went out my way on a weeklong visit to New York to see it. In the end, Xerxes would not be exhibit A in a defense of NYCO's efforts, but you could list it among the credits.

Harvey Steiman




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