PREVIEW (HT): IU Opera Theater to present its first production of Handel’s ‘Xerxes’

Music Beat

By Peter JacobiH-T Columnist
January 27, 2013

Even in a period when the operas of George Frideric Handel are propulsively regaining prominence worldwide, his opera “Xerxes” seems still to lag somewhat behind in revivals. Gary Thor Wedow and Tom Diamond can’t for the life of them determine why.

They love the opera. They consider the music to reflect Handel at his best. They delight in the story. They believe — indeed, they predict — we will love it as much as they. And we have an opportunity to prove them right starting Friday night, when IU Opera Theater introduces its first ever production of this Handel opera in the Musical Arts Center.

That production will be the creation of the two gentlemen mentioned above, plus another. Wedow, whose musical education includes piano studies with Jorge Bolet here at IU and who has become a sought-after conductor for historically informed, Early Music opera and concert performances, is the visiting music director for this local Handel presentation. Diamond, a prominent, widely used opera and theater stage director, will take care of those critical elements.

The two were here a few years ago to collaborate in a production of another Handel opera, “Giulio Cesare.” This time, they’ve brought along Bob Perdziola, a set and costume designer of growing and reportedly glowing stature. “Bob is famous for beautiful stage settings,” says conductor Wedow. “He’s outdone himself on this one.”

Adds Diamond: “Bob and I had a meeting of the minds. We both wanted aesthetic beauty and a romantic atmosphere for this story about love and lovers. He scrutinized me. What was my vision, he wanted to know. He didn’t want one of those cold 21st century productions. I certainly didn’t. Just you wait. When the curtain opens and Xerxes sings rhapsodically to a tree, you’ll see a most uncommon tree amidst the beauty of a wooded area. The scene becomes a metaphor for people in love getting lost in a forest of troubles. It’s only the start to a series of stage visions you can delight in.” Wedow describes the sets as “fantastic, voluptuous, beautiful, as for a fairy tale.”

Incidentally, that aria, “Ombra mai fu,” praising the beauties of the given tree and wishing for it “dear peace” when thunder, lightning and storms strike, is probably — next to the Hallelujah Chorus from “Messiah” — the most famous tune Handel ever wrote. Usually, when played without words, it is called Handel’s “Largo.”

The opera is a comedy. Xerxes, king of Persia, he who sings to that tree, is engaged to one woman but falls in love with another, his brother’s fiancee. Misunderstandings, jealousies, disguises and confusions ensue. When all is done, however, love triumphs for those involved.

The goings-on are attached to music Wedow judges to be “among the greatest Handel ever wrote. The score doesn’t have the sort of dramatic moments of ‘Julius Caesar.’ ‘Caesar’ is about iconic characters, famous ones out of history. ‘Xerxes’ isn’t. The story unfolds differently. You’ll find that the music is gentler. It pairs with an intimate story. The opera is a sort of ‘Downton Abbey’ for kings and princes, a comedy/drama about interpersonal relations, about young people discovering love and how to love and being hurt by love and growing. So, we get one of Handel’s most human scores, with lovely melodies. There are bravura arias, too, but they blend in with the recitatives, the spoken dialogue. Sometimes, you can’t tell where the talk ends and the arias begin. There’s continuity. It works beautifully.”

Some of the arias, in typical Handelian fashion, are long, notes Diamond, “with perhaps eight minutes of music for four lines of text. They are long for singers, and they can be long for the listeners. We have to work on giving them an arc, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s important for the singers to get a road map through them. That’s for me to provide, and we’re making great progress.”

Both Wedow and Diamond express satisfaction about how work on the IU production is faring. “I’m very pleased,” says Wedow. “The two casts are amazing. Everyone seems to be a Handel singer. There are no elephants around. Everyone is stepping up to the challenge, and a challenge it is. Handel makes demands. The students are meeting them. That includes those in the orchestra. They’ve got bravura passages to handle, too.”

Is it too much of a challenge, I ask. “Oh, no,” Wedow tells me. “Actually, the opera is a good one to do at the university level because the characters are the age of those singing. Young people portray young people having young people’s problems. And you have such excellent talents here at IU. They’re doing just fine.”

“They’re like camels driven toward an oasis,” adds Diamond. “I’m very pleased and happy to be back, working with such talents. But by now, I’ve come to expect that at the Jacobs School.”

So, what should we expect? “A luxurious production into which Tom has placed human characters with a story to tell,” says Wedow. “And the music is breathtaking. I love it. Handel is right up there with the greats, with Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini. He wrote masterpieces. ‘Xerxes’ is one.”

Reach Peter by sending an email to with “Jacobi” in the subject line.

If you go

WHAT AND WHO:Handel’s opera “Xerxes,” given for the first time by IU Opera Theater, with two alternating casts, conducted by Gary Thor Wedow and stage directed by Tom Diamond. Sets and costumes are by Robert Perdziola.

WHERE:Musical Arts Center on the IU Bloomington campus.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday this week and next

TICKETS:At Musical Arts Center box office or via Opening night, this Friday, general admission: $25 for adults, $12 for students. Remaining performances, reserved seats: $15-$38 for adults, $10-$27 for students.

Show times

All the events listed below are free.

This afternoon at 4 in Auer Hall, final round of Third Latin American Music Recording Competition.

This afternoon at 5 in Ford-Crawford Hall, an Early Music chamber concert features music of Purcell.

This evening at 8 in Auer, a faculty recital by cellist Eric Kim holds music by Boccherini, Brahms, Debussy, Chopin and Glazunov.

Monday evening at 8 in Auer, a faculty/guest recital unites Roger Roe, oboe; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola; and R. Kent Cook, piano, in “Poetic Music for Oboe, Viola, and Piano” by Klughardt, Holbrooke, White, and Loeffler.

Wednesday evening at 8 in Auer, guest recital by violinist Noah Bendix-Bagley contains music by Tartini, Beethoven, Debussy and Schubert. Bendix-Bagley also offers a guest master class in Ford two nights earlier, that’s Monday at 7.

Thursday evening at 8 in Auer, the New Music Ensemble, with Don Freund directing, plays works of Phan (premiere of the Double Concertante for Piano and Violin), Lim, Schnittke and Lubell. Guest performers include violinist Ik-Hwan Bae, pianist Sung Mi Im, oboist Linda Strommen, and the Hammond Piano Duo.

Friday evening at 8 in Auer, the Bloomington Chapter of the American Guild of Organists and the Jacobs School Organ Department co-sponsor an annual choral fest.

Courtesy of Indiana University Erica Schoelkopf, left, stars as Xerxes with Mathilda Edge as Romilda.

Copyright: 2013


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