“XERXES” – A Royally Entertaining Production at SF Opera

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Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

George Frideric Handel’s “Xerxes” now at San Francisco Opera through Saturday, November 19th, is as scrumptious as it gets in the Classical world of 1737. Yes, it is the uncut version, which means three hours and 40 minutes including two intermissions. And at its Sunday matinee opening this past Halloween Eve – when some of us could have been outside soaking up the last of the sunshine or watching a costume parade – like, the superclad and really-super un-clad up in the Castro – turns out, there was plenty of fancy dress stitchery and gender bending fakery going on to fascinate the eye and arouse the ear. The cast of Xerxes consists of the finest interpreters of Baroque music in the world.

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XERXES, Act 1
Photo, Cory Weaver

Conducted by Patrick Summers, the opera marks the Company’s premier of the Laurence Olivier Award-winning production by the acclaimed Nicholas Hytner (film credits include “The Madness of King George”) and as revived by director Michael Walling. The glory belongs to its extraordinary cast headed by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as “Xerxes”, the powerful warrior king who reigned in 5th century BCE Persia. The composer designed the role for a “soprano castrato”, but, no matter – similar titillation and wonderment is provided by the high-flying vocal dexterity of the well-equipped countertenor, David Daniels, as the king’s brother, “Arsamenes”. As “Amastris”, a Princess from another land and the betrothed of Xerxes – but – disguised as a man so she can get the real low-down on the King’s flirtations with his brother’s heartthrob, “Romilda” – contralto Sonia Prina sang the pants off her three rapid-fire arias loaded with bottom heavy coloratura. Prina’s daunting precision is crystal clear, vibrant, and fascinating.

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David Daniels (Arsamenes) and Susan Graham (Xerxes)
Photo, Felix Sanchez

Xerxes is a crazy-quilt of entanglements wrapped around a convoluted plot (and the intercepted letter gag) which makes sense eventually – if you stick with it. During the Overture, the characters – “The Dramatis Personae” – were introduced ala the grand style used for the opening credits of only the most stylish of classic MGM films. Each of the principal singers is presented under the spotlight as their character’s name, credentials, and amorous intentions are projected onto a large green (astro-turf-looking) curtain. A nice touch – considering the gender-challenged “Who’s Who” list of Handel’s switch-hitting players. It’s all about Love. Over and over. The opera is strung together by a series of arias, all of them all about It. Each of the characters expounds on the cause and effect of It’s ability to really get in your way, or to cause distraction. Certainly pain, and overwhelming desire, some glory – whether they’re in or out of It, running away from It (perhaps in disguise), hot on Its heels, or in these boots just made for walkin’ all over It.

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Sonia Prina (Amastris)
Photo, Cory Weaver

Sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa as “Romilda” are the perfect coupling as sisters and rivals for the attention of “Arsamenes”. Michael Sumuel as “Elviro”, servant to Arsamenes, possesses a warm and vibrant bass-baritone. His comic characterization of a peasant flower seller was the highlight of a frothy scene involving his being in drag in the Palace Tea Room in the presence of the King – with Romilda – during an exchange of pastries and a hot love letter. The production follows Handelian Tradition in that no matter where or when the story takes place, the setting is basically English Baroque with location-specific suggestions here and there. A collection of beautifully potted designer cactus plants in one of the courtyards reminded us that the deserts of Persia are never far away.

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Michael Sumuel (Elviro) and Lisette Oropesa (Romilda)
Photo, Cory Weaver

“Xerxes” continues for five additional performances. Click on the date to order tickets on-line:
Friday, November 4th, 7:30 pm
Tuesday, November 8th, 7:30 pm
Friday, November 11, 7:30 pm
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm

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