RECORDING OF THE MONTH
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Xerxes (Serse) HWV40 -Opera in three acts(1738) (sung in English)
Xerxes (Serse), A Persian king - Ann Murray (mezzo); Arsamenes, Xerxes’ brother, Christopher Robson - (counter-tenor); Elviro, Arsamenes’ often tipsy servant - Christopher Booth-Jones (baritone); Ariodates, Commander of the army - Rodney Macann (bass-baritone); Romilda, daughter of Ariodates, loved by Arsamene and who unknowingly bewitches Xerxes by her singing - Valerie Masterson (soprano); Atalanta, secretly loves Arsamene - Lesley Garrett (soprano); Amastris, forsaken by Xerxes after his infatuation by Romilda and banished - Jean Rigby (mezzo).
English National Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Sir Charles Mackerras
rec. live, English National Opera, 1988
Stage Direction: Nicholas Hytner
Set Design: David Fielding
Subtitle Languages: English (original language), French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch
Picture Format: 4:3. DVD Format, DVD 9, NTSC. Sound Format: PCM Stereo
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 100 077 [186:00]
I sometimes think that a Handel renaissance in the UK has been on the horizon, or at least in sight, since the 1980s. Way back then, with the help of CD recordings on Philips, the Verdi renaissance was well under way whilst the Pesaro Festival accelerated that of Rossini’s works. Somehow the virtues of Handel’s operatic works have largely languished. They seem to have lacked a committed champion with clout. Yes, his operas tend be long and somewhat static, but also I suspect the gender mix-ups are seen as an audience deterrent. These are inherent in all operatic works of the period with roles written expressly for castrati. In this one the gender confusions are increased beyond the normal run with the King being sung by a mezzo en travesti, his brother by a counter-tenor and Xerxes’ forsaken lover, Amastris, re-appearing in man’s attire. In this production, in wonderfully inventive and colourful sets by David Fielding, the costumes are sensible without being exact to a period, particularly in respect of Romilda and Atalanta, the two women in the lives of the two brothers.
Since this production was first seen in London in 1985, and recorded for transmission on television three years later - not ten years as the booklet states - Handel’s operas have had a very minor resurgence in Britain. This has often been at the summer country house festivals and at the Buxton Festival, although even there the staging of certain of the composer’s oratorios seems to find more favour. As I write in 2012, there have been more positive signs. Opera North recently presented Giulio Cesare (see review), Welsh National Opera plan a staging of the oratorio Jeptha for its autumn season at Cardiff, and the associated tour, and the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester are staging Xerxes (see review). Prior to the latter production, the last time the college presented any Handel was Alcina twenty or more years ago. That was one of two productions the college featured specifically to showcase the rapidly emerging talent of Amanda Roocroft who went from College direct to a contract with Welsh National Opera. Nor should we forget Glyndebourne’s recent effort with a hailed Giulio Cesare. These more recent swallows do not make a spring, but several professional companies scheduling Handel’s works, and now one of the UK’s leading conservatories … well, that promised renaissance might just be getting nearer.
Nicholas Hytner's highly innovative production of Xerxes won the coveted Laurence Olivier Opera Award and this video resurrection of the performance might just be a watershed rather than just another British swallow. This 1988 performance features some of the outstanding English-speaking singers around at that time. All are good in their roles and if there are a few moments of vocal imperfection they are more than compensated for in outstanding acting and decorated singing. The mezzo-sopranos Ann Murray and Jean Rigby are quite magnificent in their sung and acted portrayal. If the sopranos Valerie Masterson and Lesley Garrett don’t quite match them it is by a small margin, with the latter acting the role with every facial expression imaginable, and then some, whilst singing with a clear lyric quality. The dark tones of Rodney Macann are sonorous whilst Christopher Booth-Jones does not over-act the role of Elviro, as can so easily be the case. The counter-tenor Christopher Robson does his best without my yearning for the more creamy tones found among some European singers of the genre.
Having lauded the virtues of the direction, sets, costumes and singing, I have to find some greater superlatives for the contribution of Sir Charles Mackerras’s conducting. With a trimmed-down band he manages a near Baroque rendering of his own erudite edition of Handel’s even longer score. It is too rare to find practice and scholarship so closely entwined, albeit perhaps one should not be surprised by the man who did so much to bring the operatic works of Leos Janáček before West European audiences and British ones in particular.
Robert J Farr
A classic interpretation of this too rarely heard Baroque masterpiece.