REVIEW (HT – Peter Jacobi): IU opera production (XERXES) eye-teasing to look at and a pleasure to hear

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‘XERXES’

OPERA REVIEW: IU opera production eye-teasing to look at and a pleasure to hear

By Peter JacobiH-T Reviewer | pjacobi@heraldt.com
February 4, 2013

“All would be well if one could fall in and out of love at will.” That thoughtful sentiment, forwarded somewhere late in the evening during the opera “Xerxes,” can also serve as summary for this Handel work, currently on view at the Musical Arts Center in a handsome production, its first, by Indiana University Opera Theater.

It is the title character himself who offers the statement. Xerxes is the love-smitten fellow striving to gain the love of the beautiful Romilda. His efforts don’t go well; Romilda, enamored of Xerxes’ brother, refuses to return that love. Thwarted, he causes grief for others in the story. He can do that because he happens to be king of Persia. King or not, he loses out in his quest, only to be reminded that awaiting him, still loyal, is a princess to whom he’s been betrothed all along. Their reconciliation before the final curtain assures that general happiness prevails.

In other words, the story for this Handel opera is a trifle about young folks experiencing the passion, pining and pangs, of love. Never mind that the Xerxes of history was a mighty warrior who, at the height of his power, had a bridge of boats constructed that enabled his armies to occupy and pillage Greece.

This is opera, after all. One accepts “Xerxes” as such, a theatrical fairy tale, a romantic comedy that, for those who experience it, contains more than its fair share of delights because (1) Handel provided some of his loveliest and also fieriest music, and (2) IU Opera Theater has come up with a production extraordinarily eye-teasing to look at and, most of the time, a pleasure to hear. What’s more, “Xerxes” remains a relative rarity in the world’s opera houses, so to come upon a live performance is a welcome surprise.

The eye-teasing elements — lush forest scenes, palatial spaces of tasteful grandeur, boats at the Hellespont, costume finery — are the creation of guest designer Robert Perdziola. They’re impressive enough to perhaps force Opera Theater bigwigs to keep “Xerxes” in the repertory, lest it all go to waste forgotten in the warehouse.

This production excelled musically and dramatically, too, thanks to a pair of returning experts, veterans who previously staged Handel’s more famous opera, “Giulio Cesare,” conductor Gary Thor Wedow and stage director Tom Diamond. The two waxed enthusiastically about the opera beforehand and managed, with considerable success, to support their feelings on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Wedow had his casts and the IU Chamber Orchestra stylistically attuned to the Baroque of Handel; he himself played one of the harpsichords, helping to set the tone. The orchestra, rather than lowered in the pit as usual, sat at audience level, surrounded back and front by a split stage apron, amply used for the unfolding action.

He and Diamond had agreed that whatever could be done should be attempted to limit the often static nature of Handel’s operas, the repetitive nature of singers standing about to unload one aria after another. Sure enough, there was continued movement through a long evening, all of it — thanks to Diamond — helpfully devised. Another visitor, Eiddwen Harrhy, a Baroque style coach, was an undoubted help. One certainly watched a lively performance.

A genius touch was the addition of a dancing sprite to hop and hover as the characters lived out their tortured love entanglements. Two splendid dancers, Chris Lingner on Friday and Aaron Anker on Saturday, portrayed this ever-present Amore, dancing most nimbly the amusing choreography of Jacques Cesbron.

To say that every singer, even any singer, completely mastered Handel’s score would be a severe overstatement. Stress was not uncommon as the music called for extremes in range, flexibility in scale work and explosive dynamic bursts, sometimes all at once. But not a member of either cast failed to give his or her best. Not a one failed to contribute positively to the whole of this production. The singers had been carefully selected and proved welcome choices.

The difficult trouser role of Xerxes was well served by mezzos Amanda Russo and Erica Schoelkopf; they got to sing the opening aria, an ode to a tree, of all things, that happens to be set to one of Handel’s most famous tunes, usually referred to as his “Largo.”

Countertenors Michael Linert and Daniel Bubeck effectively assumed the part of Arsamene, Xerxes’ brother, sometimes dashing and at other times mopey, he who loves and is loved by Romilda, the woman Xerxes desires. Romilda is a spitfire when challenged, and her challenging music matches her temperament, vigorously captured by sopranos Katelyn Lee and Mathilda Edge; they deserve plaudits.

Mezzos Krista Laskowski and Anne Chester scored as Xerxes’ fiancee Amastre. Sopranos Martha Eason and Elise Kennedy portray Romilda’s naughty schemer of a sister, Atalanta; they gave her plenty of personality and voice. Basses Andrew Richardson and Tyler Henderson added authority as their father, Ariodate, Xerxes’ general. As Arsamene’s servant, Elviro, baritones Daniel Lentz and Nathaniel Hill contributed some needed buffoonery.

Copyright: HeraldTimesOnline.com 2013

 

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