Murray, Masterson, Garrett, Rigby; Robson, Macann, Booth-Jones; Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera, Mackerras. Production: Hytner. Arthaus Musik 100 077, 186 mins., subtitled
A reissue from Arthaus of Nicholas Hytner's Xerxes for English National Opera affords a fresh assessment of this endearing and enduring production. Features of the award-winning 1985 show — the garden furniture, the statuary, the hedge-clipping — have been seen here and there in other Handel operas, but Hytner's breezy style and gentle humor were startling and refreshing at the time and still present a high standard for comparison.
Hytner places the opera in a Vauxhall Garden locale, where groups of gray-clad choristers admire the grounds, attend an open-air concert and observe the amorous competition of the willful, spoiled Xerxes and his long-suffering brother Arsamenes. The director blends Enlightenment aesthetics with then-fashionable "oriental" flavors to offer a witty look at posh eighteenth-century society.
As Hytner turns a mirror on Handel's operagoing public, the composer's 1738 work reflects his desperation to maintain an audience for Italian opera by writing music in a lighter, more popular style. Short dance-tunes and strophic airs relieve the tedium of lengthy da capo arias, while informal duets pepper the score.
Mezzo-soprano Ann Murray heads the cast in a stunning performance in which vocal perfection — her brilliant top, rich and elegant sound, superb breath control — serves a characterization so exuberant and poised that we overlook Xerxes's obnoxious narcissism. While fulfilling his kingly duties in ceremonies such as dedicating a tree and knighting a war hero, Xerxes eyes his brother's girlfriend, and the Act I aria "When I see her" finds Murray positively drooling with lascivious anticipation, pouncing and sprawling among lounge chairs, while keeping the lengthy aria fresh and dramatically compelling. Capturing the musical and vocal essence of each moment, Murray clothes Xerxes in a politician's dangerous amiability, and her performance is stupendous in every way.
Countertenor Christopher Robson's Arsamenes is no less gripping, and he portrays Xerxes's younger brother with nobility and sympathy. As a vocal actor, Robson motivates da capo repeats with breathtaking imagination and proficiency, especially the internal, thoughtful aria "When grief and pain assail me" and the bitter "Once we would kiss and play."
As the love interest Romilda, Valerie Masterson is the weakest link, looking like a Raggedy Ann doll, with messy red hair and a vacant expression, and singing with shrill tones. Soprano Lesley Garrett brings just the right amount of coyness to the annoying younger sister Atalanta, but her singing is also thin. Jean Rigby brings firm tone and flawless technique to the low-lying role of Amastris, Xerxes's abandoned fiancée, with an intense, captivating portrayal. As the blockheaded general Ariodates, Rodney Macann tends to punch each note, but Christopher Booth-Jones's Elviro is both funny and well sung, even in his drunken aria.
The staging has weathered well, still looking fresh and inventive and superior to many more recent shtick-laden Baroque productions. David Fielding's sets and the uncredited costume designs are elegant and attractive. The singing reflects the big-house Handel style of the 1980s and '90s, with few appoggiaturas, lame trills (except from Robson) and ornaments that sound glued-on. It's hard to believe, however, how awful the orchestra sounds under Charles Mackerras, with every note cut in half in a faux-correct historical manner, resulting in thudding and lifeless playing. Triple-time arias, starting right off the bat with "Ombra mai fu," are especially hammered. (Would anyone play Mozart so crassly?) Notes are clipped and shapeless, and the bass lines are ludicrously thumpy and heavy.
Hytner's English translation is both singable and understandable, but the subtitles differ widely from the actual sung text. In addition, Arthaus's booklet erroneously gives the performance date as 1995. This is a 1988 live broadcast reprise of the 1985 production, and an essay on the significance and history of this staging would have been welcome.
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