Handel’s Xerxes from New Zealand Opera in brilliant period orchestral setting

Handel: Xerxes, an opera in three acts, sung in the original Italian with English surtitles.

NBR New Zealand Opera with the Lautten Compagney conducted by Wolfgang Katschner, directed by Roger Hodgman

Xerxes: Tobias Cole; Romilda: Tiffany Speight; Arsamene: William Purefoy; Atalanta: Amy Wilkinson; Amastre: Kristen Darragh; Ariodate: Martin Snell; Elviro: Stephen Bennett; Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (chorus master Michael Vinten)

St. James Theatre

16 March 2011 (season in Wellington: 15-16, 18-19 March)

It was very satisfying to see a fully-staged performance of Xerxes, unusually with two counter-tenors singing lead roles, rather than at least one being a woman, and to hear the arias at the original pitch.

A further bonus was to have an experienced and professional baroque orchestra accompany in the pit. There were some rumblings about using an imported orchestra when this was first announced, but it is unlikely that New Zealand has enough baroque players who could be available to play a professional season in both Auckland and Wellington. Certainly the decision to employ this orchestra (whose name means ‘company of lutes’) was fully vindicated, even if the lute and theorbo could seldom be heard.

While the stalls were almost full, and presumably the circle, I understand the upper gallery was less than half full that day.

The printed programme was careful on the point of this being the first fully staged professional production of a Handel opera performance in New Zealand (as opposed to concert performance). The newspapers and the Listener have not been so careful, referring to ‘the first fully-staged performance of a Handel opera in New Zealand’, which is simply untrue. Less than two years ago the New Zealand School of Music put on Handel’s Semele in a delightful production, as fully staged as you like. Several decades earlier, Victoria University School of Music performed a fully staged Julius Caesar of Handel, in the university’s Memorial Theatre. There were earlier semi-staged performances of Julius Caesar, Alcina, Ariodante and Rinaldo in Christchurch by Academy Opera. There may have been other staged productions of Handel operas of which I am not aware.

Another point about the printed programme was its readability. It was sumptuously produced with gorgeous photographs. But please, programme designers, don’t have white print on a black background! It is too hard to read, especially for that substantial portion of your audience that is over the age of 55. Even, worse, all the print was in Arial, or similar sans-serif font, which readability tests have shown is not nearly as readable as fonts with serifs. People think sans-serif looks modern; actually the serifs carry the eye forward and aid reading.

Now to the performance itself, on 16 March. The opening overture was a delight: the orchestra’s crisp rhythms, fast tempi and detached playing set an energetic mood that continued for the whole opera. A feature was lovely recorder playing.

The colonnaded set designed by John Verryt, with projected distant scenes behind, reminiscent of Italy, was most handsome, especially under the lighting by Matt Scott, with its frequently changing colours to reflect situations and moods (a little too frequently, I thought).

Costuming was a little more problematical. Xerxes, Romilda, Atalanta and Amastre (the latter as a soldier) wore gorgeous costumes by Trelise Cooper. But the other principals and the chorus wore extremely dull outfits. Why would a general in what appeared to be early nineteenth-century times, wear a khaki -coloured uniform? Surely camouflage hadn’t been invented then (whenever ‘then’ was)? And why did the chorus and those fulfilling acting rather than singing roles, and the remainder of the chorus, wear dull grey and black bits and pieces of body-clinging modern casual garments?

The opera was sung in very good Italian; the surtitles only occasionally moved too fast to read. Some opera-goers thought the translations should have had been repeated on the screens during the repetitions of the da capo arias .

Xerxes (Tobias Cole), in a costume featuring white trousers and a purple (kingly) jacket with a gold and be-jewelled peacock embroidered on the back, sang his famous ‘Ombrai mai fu’ beautifully, in a flexible, high counter-tenor voice. His was the less mellifluous voice of the two counter-tenors – appropriate for the nastier character. It seemed ludicrous to sing in praise of the shade and protection of the tree when the tree was tiny, sitting in a pot. Perhaps it was a token gesture, in irony. The stage business of Xerxes tending the tree, assisted by sundry silent servants, was good fun.

Soon we saw Arsamene (William Purefoy), surprisingly dressed in very dull costume, and with short hair, as opposed to Xerxes’s flowing shoulder-length ringlets.  One might have supposed that the royal brother would also look royal, but perhaps his more active life-style precluded that. Purefoy’s voice is different in quality from that of Cole  rather warmer, fuller and more mellow, but equally flexible.  His lower notes were beautiful.

Then Romilda arrived (Tiffany Speight) in a glorious bright pink floating long coat over a gold dress.  Speight’s voice is splendid, and carried even from the back of the stage (which wasn’t true of all the singers); naturally, it was even better from the front  clear and fluent.  Her wonderful aria about the brook flowing to the sea showed Handel’s skill with word-painting, trills describing the water.

Romilda’s sister Atalanta (Amy Wilkinson) revealed a rich, flexible, expressive voice, along with an expressive face, and excellent acting ability.

Next on stage was Amastre, Xerxes’s fiancée, dressed as a man. Although her attire was obviously military, she boasted white trousers and a red jacket – was this intended to show that she was of higher birth (a princess, indeed) than Ariodante, the general, in his sombre dress? Amastre was sung by Kristen Darragh, the first of the New Zealanders to come on stage. Her mezzo was not as strong as the other soloists voices, particularly from further back on the stage, but she carried off her role extremely well. In her suicide aria she was clearer, and the full beauty of her voice was revealed.

The General, Ariodante (Martin Snell), was next to arrive, and immediately his sonorous bass made an impression. His conversation with Xerxes had its funny side, since Xerxes’s apparently heavily jewelled crown did not inhibit small movements of his head at all!

A florid bass aria for Ariodante was splendidly sung, the low notes quite thrilling. The orchestral accompaniment varied between legato and staccato, maintaining interest, as did the excellent lighting, and the projected images.

An extended aria from Xerxes was well-sustained; the florid singing superlative. Just one or two shrieks at the very top, and the occasional flat top note here and elsewhere marred the performance. The humorous production details were enjoyable; acting was almost universally good.

The most humorous character was the servant, Elviro, who, not to be outdone by Xerxes and Arsamene, got to sing falsetto as well. Stephen Bennett invested this character with slapstick, particularly when dressed as a woman flower-seller, where his impersonation was achingly funny, as he switched between falsetto and his usual voice. His costume was a bright note.

Acts 1 and 2 were continuous, which made for a rather long first session, in which my attention occasionally flagged.

‘Opera Exposed’ in the interval consisted of Aidan Lang, the General Director of New Zealand Opera interviewing several of the participants in a light-hearted but informative way. Conductor Katschner talked briefly about the orchestra, and had the theorbo, lute and violin demonstrate their instruments – and the last, the baroque bow. Purefoy spoke about his role and his voice, with a few jokes about counter-tenors thrown in, and Kristen Darragh was interviewed about playing trouser roles.

Another attractive overture preceded the third Act, but the violins were too loud for lute and theorbo, which became indistinguishable from the harpsichord, though soon after I was able to hear the lute, accompanying Atalanta.

Purefoy gave us a lovely liquid sound in his aria in this Act. The chorus, which Handel allowed only a couple of outings, had a lively, fresh sound, and were perfectly balanced; their movement, too, was admirable.

Elviro entertained us again, demonstrating that Xerxes’s bridge across the Hellespont was not a thing of any permanence – accompanied by very jolly orchestral music. A very decorated aria for Romilda revealed Speight’s consistent excellence. Her characterisation and acting were always of a high order. She made singing Handel, even the many florid passages, seem so easy, not least in her duet with Purefoy.

Ariodante returned, delighted to have married his daughter (Romilda) to Arsamene (misunderstanding Xerxes’s intentions to have her for himself), and between delicious low notes, executed a couple of amusing jubilant dances.

Kristen Darragh had another opportunity to show off her attractive contralto register; with cello and recorder accompaniment, this aria was exquisite.

Tobias Cole again displayed the power of his voice, and showed that he is athletic both vocally and bodily. Not to mention his ability to express humour in both voice and acting, as well as the rage he delivers variously to most other principals. Some of his stage movement in ‘Soak me in the vile abyss’ echoed that of Atalanta when her deceit is found out. The third chorus number was very good indeed.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable production. Handel’s marvellous long lines in the arias were outstandingly performed by singers and orchestra, and the humour and fallibility of the characters endeared them and the music to the audience to the extent of a partial standing ovation at the end, and much applause greeting each aria and ensemble.

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