Nicholas Hytner's highly innovative production of Handel's comic opera won the coveted Laurence Olivier Opera Award. This live recording from the English National Opera stars Ann Murray as Xerxes, whose love for Romilda, s... more »ung by Valerie Masterson, sets off a series of love intrigues. The designer, David Fielding, has produced a stunning and elegant series of curious and absorbing images, creating a world of its own and recreating the culture of Vauxhall Gardens in Handel's own time. Sir Charles Mackerras conducts the English National Opera Orchestra in an edition prepared by himself. Also starring Christopher Robson, Jean Rigby, Lesley Garrett, and Christopher Booth-Jones. 186 minutes.« less
"This is an unforgettable production of a beautiful operatic work that is worth watching over and over. As for many people, my desire to see the opera grew out of my love for the famous recitative and aria with which it begins, Ombra mai fù, which is a standard part of the repertory for those who study vocal music. It is only through Amazon.com, however, that I found out that Xerxes is considered one of Handel's best operas. The orchestration, under the masterful baton of Sir Charles Mackerras, is profoundly moving, and the singing by all the principals is out of this world -- even if the opening piece, in Ann Murray's hands and in English translation, lacks the emotive power it has been given by great baritones like Bryn Terfel and China's Liao Chang Yong. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw this opera billed as a comedy, but it turned out to have all of the dramatic intensity and depth of character portrayal of a "serious" opera. It has its humor, indeed, but, as we would expect of Handel, it is humor of a subtle nature that never leans even slightly toward the vulgar or farcical. The work's classification as a comedy derives mainly from its non-serious subject matter -- a hopeless tangle of love triangles centering on a very unkingly king (played by Ann Murray) and his handsome brother -- and from the fact that the many conflicts and deceptions that move the plot to its near-tragic climax are all somehow resolved in the end in a happy ending. Certainly, for a modern audience, to hear Handel writing the same sort of music that he later used to praise God in Messiah to tell a story about sexual lust and intersibling sexual rivalry also adds the sort of comic touch that arises from the unexpected juxtaposition of the realms of the sacred and the profane. This is truly a masterful opera, and I found myself thinking that Baroque opera, with all its elegance and its stylized acting and staging conventions, in a certain way occupies a higher artistic plane than the much more realistic and complex operas of romantic masters like Verdi and Puccini. And Handel was the unquestioned master of baroque opera. This particular performance of the opera is remarkable not only for its musical perfection, but also for the unique and highly effective staging and sets, designed with a masterful sense of aesthetic contrast, balance, taste and symmetry that somehow combines a pre-modern (classical and aristocratic) spirit with a modern egalitarianism and a postmodern determination to break beyond the conventional. The sets throughout are gently dominated by the color green, echoing the theme of the first scene where King Xerxes' extols his passionate love for his plane tree in the garden. This passionate love seems to spread out to the whole world of vegetation that the tree represents, and then, with a seemless continuity, to the woman Xerxes falls in love with when he hears her singing outside the garden. Romilda also emerges from the surrounding vegetation into the garden and, like the plane tree, is also blossoming forth in the springtime of youth. "Ombra mai fù, di vegetabile, cara ed amabile, soave più" : Never was the shade of a growing thing more dear and charming, more sweet!). The set designer, David Fielding, adds one of his subtle touches of humor in portraying the king's beloved plane tree as a rather scraggly little adolescent tree in a large pot, which, as yet at least, is not capable of giving any real shade even to the little patch of ground under its branches, let alone to the King of Persia. Perhaps this foreshadows the fact that Xerxes in the end never gets his longed-for Romilda, whose green nuptial shadow falls instead on the king's brother, the one she really loved. The other use of color in the staging of the opera is one of the most striking effects I have even seen in a recorded stage production. The main characters are made to stand out from the supporting characters by appearing in full and natural color --both their faces and their elegant vestments. In contrast, there are two categories of supporting roles (obviously consisting of the members of the chorus), one dressed in black with their faces painted in pure white and their hair covered by white plastic so they appear bald. These figures stand or move elegantly but drolly around the stage performing the roles of servants, but with an air of dignity, individuality, and slight bemusement that immediately endears them to the audience. Then there is another type of secondary actor who are literally "background characters," dressed and made-up totally in grey, so that at first, before they start moving, they appear almost like lifeless statues decorating the background of the king's garden. At times they play the role of dispassionate observers to the passionate events that are occurring among and between the protagonists, but they do engage themselves peripherally in the dramatic action at times by giving signals or words to the protagonists and by giving distinct facial expressions that capture various undercurrents of the emotional tone of the scenes being acted out. Truly a masterful piece of stage work, and it is no wonder that this production won the Laurence Olivier Opera Award. If I were asked to choose the best production of a Handel opera that I have seen on DVD, I would still choose Julius Caesar, also performed by the English National Opera and Sir Charles Mackerras (I have yet to see the double DVD of Tamerlano, released by ArtHaus in August 2002). This production of Xerxes, however, graced with Handel's most famous aria, stands in a category of its own."
Christopher Robson | East Sussex, England, UK | 05/21/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Just to re-assure current customers that this recording was made at the first revival (last performance of the run, in fact) in 1988. There has been NO subsequent TV recording made of this ENO production at the Coliseum (I should know, I was in it!) since that time. Just to clear up the confusion. Christopher Robson"
Best Handel DVD yet!
Christopher Robson | 05/13/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"...This performance is by a top cast of English performers at the English National Opera in London. This purchase is worth it only for the fact that Ann Murray sings a superlative Serse (Xerxes). The title role of Serse which Handel composed for the great castrato Gaetano Majorano (who also trained with Farrinelli's teacher Nicola Porpora) is plainly put a terrifying part. Ann Murray (in probably Handel's most testing role for a castrato) offers a clarion and creamy voice which meets every obstacle with her excellent technique. The fact that every aria is stylishly and stylistically decorated according to the competencies of the specific singer are breathtaking: especially in Serse's big set pieces of every Act where MacKerras went to town making the decoration as difficult and intricate as possible. Needles to say these decorations do not seem to trouble Murray at all as she whizzes through them with unbelievable ease. Her colleagues Valerie Masterson (Romilda), Leslie Garrett (Atalanta) and Christopher Robson (Arsamene), to name but a few, excel in this clever production. Leslie Garrett especially seems to have been born to sing Atalanta. The conducting of MacKerras is not very interesting, but his tempi are very well-chosen - although one wishes that they had Minkowski or Jacobs in the pit! Forget other performances of this opera...The English translation (and please note I generally prefer operas to be sung in their original language) fits the music like a glove. The costumes are not modern - mostly 18th century flavoured (around the time of George III). The Genie... of Act two is one of the many demi-gods which were revered in Xerxes's Ancient Persia where this story is set by Handel. This is a clever, nostalgic, funny at times, and a true updating - unlike the Bondy "Don Carlos" - of an opera with a very complicated plot."
C.A. Arthur | Tacoma, Washington | 08/03/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is as fine an opera production as you will ever see--on film or in person. It is close to perfection. The music is glorious, the singers are brilliant, and the staging is outstanding. I've now seen this production at least ten times, first on VHS, and I never cease to marvel. The DVD is clearer than the VHS, and the sound is magnificent. Above all, buy this to see and hear Ann Murray. Bravo!"
While not performed often, this opera has some marvelous mus
Craig Matteson | Ann Arbor, MI | 01/05/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"While most of humanity lives for the moment, a few understand the importance of preserving aspects of their present to pass on to subsequent generations. Works of art are often among these treasures handed down. While there are many great reasons for this, one of them is to help them find an audience that they might not have enjoyed when they were created. This opera by Handel has confused audiences since its premier on April 15, 1738 at the Haymarket Theater. Handel had begun work on the opera during the previous December and had finished it about a month before the premier. It was given only five performances.
What is the problem with the opera? Maybe it was part fashion. His previous opera, "Faramondo" premiered January 3rd failed in the same theater as did the pasticcio "Alessandro Severo" from February. Each was performed a few times and were poorly attended despite having the sensational castrato Caffarelli in lead roles. Was it their being in Italian? Probably that was part of it as other entertainments in English were quite successful. Was it the music? Of course not! When we listen to "Xerxes" we are delighted with all the good things Handel's music brings to opera. The gorgeous character revealing arias, the surprisingly expressive recitative, the emotional laments, the delightful orchestrations, and the brilliant opportunities for drama and comedy.
I think Paul Henry Lang hits the nail on the head when he points to the fact that Handel had gone back to an existing libretto, actually an eighty year old libretto, by the Venetian poet and librettist, Nicolo Minato (who found more popularity among German composers than among his native Italians). Certainly, Handel had come to know this man's libretti during his studies in Italy. Lang points to the problem that this opera is not a comedy in the sense popular in the London of its time, and certainly isn't opera buffa. The Venetian sense of a comedy was taking great historical figures and showing them as regular folks with the usual besetting foibles.
Here, Xerxes is really just a self-centered fool and his being king offers some additional dramatic possibilities. He is devoted to his plane tree (the famous Largo is sung to and about the tree), becomes enchanted by Romilda and completely forgets his promised marriage to Amastris (ruler of a neighboring kingdom). The problem is that Romilda is already in love with Xerxes' brother, Arsamenes. When the king discovers this he sends his brother into exile (along with his comedy-enabling servant, Elviro). To complicate matters more, Romilda's sister, Atalanta, has an unrequited and largely unnoticed passion for Arsamenes. The sisters' father is Ariodates, who is a successful and politically ambitious general for Xerxes who thinks he sees and understands, but is quite clumsy off the battlefield.
The plot of the opera exists merely to provide opportunities for some wonderful music. While we don't believe the plot for one moment, we believe the passion, excitement, disgust, fury, and loss in the arias, ensembles, and choruses. We care about the moments more than the whole of the opera, and maybe that is what has been disconcerting over the centuries. We have become accustomed to describing plots and characters that do things. Here, we have characters who feel things and want things, but nothing much happens, except sorting out the misunderstandings so, in the end, things become what they should be.
This staging of the opera is quite interesting and finds some moments for some comedy that will make you laugh. The sets are quite pretty if not dazzling. One of the interesting features of the costumes and makeup is that only the main characters are "naturalistic". The chorus members and any subordinate character is made up in shades of gray that demonstrate their background status - and also their not being part of the royal household or circle. It is not set in the ancient world, but in some sort of blend of the London of Handel's time - evoking Vauxhall, but with Victorian propriety and proper behavior, which the real Vauxhall would not have known or wanted. But the time or place is not relevant because it isn't the historical Xerxes being portrayed, anyway.
Another interesting feature is that those who dress the sets are dressed as servants with white faces and black butler like suits. They serve the characters when needed, and move pieces on and off stage as necessary.
In this production from 1988, Ann Murray sings Xerxes quite well (it is traditional for women to sing a castrati role, and even in Handel's time, women were given male roles for soprano), Valerie Masterson sings Romilda beautifully (it was one of her later roles, and you will be surprised that she is one of the oldest cast members - I about fell down when I found out), Christopher Robson sings the king's brother, Arsamenes, and has a very beautiful and flexible countertenor voice. Jean Rigby is the slighted Amastris, betrothed to Xerxes, but when she comes to the kingdom in disguise as a man, discovers her future husband pursuing another woman for his wife. Rigby sings the role with fury and love.
Lesley Garrett is delightful and funny as Romilda's sister, Atalanta. I can still hear her singing one of the most exquisite lines in the opera. At one point Xerxes advisers her to cease her love for Arsamenes and her aria has her sing, "You advise me not to love him, but you cannot tell me how." Wow. As Elviro, Christopher-Booth Jones has the best funny lines in the opera and is the comic relief. He pulls it off superbly. And I love the way Rodney Macann gets over-excited as Ariodates. He gets so wound up in his melismas that he often has to be calmed by those he is with.
I enjoyed this production very much and having it sung in English was exactly right. If Handel had had singers in his day who could have sung it in English, I am sure he would have done so."