Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival has created a sumptuous and nuanced production of Mr. Handel's Xerxes (Serse). This opera was innovative in many ways--use of shorter arias and accompanied recitatives to move action forward, inclusion of a comic character, and a storyline that is not as complicated as those of earlier operas. These changes to the opera seria form London knew contributed to the cool reception the opera received in 1738, but also help make it one of Handel's most popular operas in our own time. The story is still convoluted, involving rivals for a maiden's affection, the maiden's scheming sister, and the wacky servant of one of the rivals. Oh, and the fiancée of one of the rivals, disguised as a man. In the end the maiden gets the man she loves and the jilted fiancée gets the man she loves.

John Holiday as Xerxes
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We were fortunate to see the first and second performances of the Glimmerglass production, and found it up to the high standard we always expect, both visually and vocally. From the very beginning, we were delighted by the clarity and sweetness of the reduced orchestra's playing, skillfully conducted by Nicole Paiment. The opera opened with the familiar aria "Ombra mai fu", bane of many a freshman voice student's existence. With maturity one learns to love the piece again, especially when it is performed by a singer like guest artist John Holiday, Jr.  Mr. Holiday still displays the agile vocal technique, pleasing sound, and very sure stage presence as Xerxes that we so admired two years ago in Cato in Utica at Glimmerglass. His show-stopper aria at the end of the opera nearly brought the house down. Xerxes experiences quite a range of emotion, and Mr. Holiday gave us this contrast with apparent ease.

Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Arsamenes, brother and rival of Xerxes, was sung by guest artist Allegra De Vita, whom we also admired in Cato in Utica.  We still love her rich and even sound and her commitment to her role's many conflicting emotions. We believed Arsamenes' love for Romilda, the maiden who attracts these two gents.

The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Romilda was sung by Emily Pogorelc, and her sister Atalanta, who also loves--or at least wants--Arsemenes, was sung by Katrina Galka. Both were made up with long, flowing blonde hair and attired in similar costumes, and did indeed look like sisters. Both were also very good singers, giving us all of Handel's florid and lyrical passages with equal grace. Ms. Pogorelc was all propriety and grace as the virtuous Romilda, while Ms. Galka was all scheming, fiery temperament as Atalanta.

Katrina Galka and Emily Pogorelc
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The servant Elvino was performed with gusto by Calvin Griffin. We enjoyed his Leporello-like antics and his fine singing. Spurned fiancée Amastris was sung by Abigail Dock with skill and artistry. Her numerous rageful arias displayed vocal range and agility. Ariodates was sung by Brent Michael Smith with sonorous dignity.

Abigail Dock and Calvin Griffin
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
There is much to discuss about the production. We quite liked the musical direction by Nicole Paiement, and her leadership of the talented cast and the orchestra. We weren't so sure about the stage direction by Tazewell Thompson. Although opera of this period often didn't involve much movement, which would not be very successful now, we wondered about some of the movement included in this production. we found many of the stage movements either arbitrary or heavy-handed. In particular, the frequent movement back and forth, onto and off of the raised platforms on the stage during angry arias didn't really make sense.

Visual elements also concerned me. While we quite liked the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti and Lighting by Robert Wierzel, the various elements of the scenery by John Conklin and how they operated together confused me. We didn't mind the raised, raked platforms on stage or the backdrops suggesting ancient Rome. But elements of scenery flew in and out for reasons we couldn't discern, often at unexpected angles to the ground.

You might disagree with my quibbles. It has been known to happen. On the whole, however, do we recommend seeing Xerxes?  Of course we do. The singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Xerxes full cast, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

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