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MUSIC REVIEW : Music Center Manages to Get a Handel on Old 'Xerxes'

October 31, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

If you like Baroque opera, you'll love George Frideric Handel's "Xerxes," a.k.a. "Serse," as performed by the Music Center Opera.

You'll love the exquisite singing, the delicate ensemble work, the elegant staging, the stylish impulses that emanate from the pit. You'll be charmed, even moved, by the period conventions.

"Xerxes" (ever helpful, the Music Center ads tell the unwashed to pronounce the name "ZERK-sees") was written in 1738 for the King's Theatre in London. Audiences in those days knew what they wanted, and Handel delivered.

In this case, he delivered a series of impeccably balanced, meticulously constructed formulas. Some are serious. Most aren't. All, in one way or another, are graceful at best and witty at worst.

The hand-me-down libretto pretends to concern certain intimate adventures of Xerxes I, King of Persia from 485 to 465 BC. In truth, however, the opera is just another convoluted comedy of eros in which this one loves that one but that one loves this one and the other one doesn't know that this one is really that one in disguise. Or something like that.

Handel cranked out beautiful melodies by the mile. The Music Center production omits four numbers (pardonably) yet still offers 3 1/2 generous hours of fancy, reflective arias separated by propulsive recitatives and framed, occasionally, by soothing sinfonias or obligatory choruses.

When a bona-fide duet materializes in the last act, the shock is deliriously welcome. Ensembles are conspicuously absent. This isn't "Le Nozze di Figaro." It isn't even "Idomeneo."

All the major voices in "Xerxes," not incidentally, are treble voices. When a minor character opens his mouth and turns out to be a basso, the surprise is shattering.

"Xerxes" may not consistently delight sensibilities accustomed to the profundities of Mozart, much less the heroics of Verdi or the passions of "Pagliacci." Handel offers undoubted rewards, however, to anyone willing to sit back, relax and enjoy a leisurely ride to the innocent, archaic, florid, courtly past. Saturday night, at least one reluctant rider--this one--had to admit to a certain impatience with the longueurs of the precious 18th-Century idiom, but that was his problem.

If "Xerxes" demands to be revived in the cool light of 1994, it certainly deserves tender, loving, enlightened care. That, thank goodness and Peter Hemmings, is precisely what it got here.

Roderick Brydon conducted with dauntless poise, equally responsive to Handel's agitated agonies, arching ecstasies and humorous diversions. The British maestro never resorted to romantic excess, always breathed with the singers and even provided clever accompaniment for the recitatives at the harpsichord. The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra met his enlightened demands with exceptional sympathy.

The physical production was originally created for the long, low and narrow alfresco stage of the Santa Fe Opera. This imposed the limitations of an open unit set that ignored the composer's requests for a garden, a square, a bridge and, ultimately, a sun temple.

Stephen Wadsworth--the mastermind who created the adaptation and the rhyme-conscious translation as well as the fluid and inventive staging scheme--decided to play all the action in front of a pretty brick house in what looks for all the world like Handel's London. Thomas Lynch's handsome, ultra-realistic construction is backed by a huge picture-frame cyclorama that suggests temporal and climatic changes. Martin Pakledinaz's lavish costumes reinforce the 18th-Century ambience.

In this instance, the updating doesn't really hurt. Xerxes in a powdered wig isn't Julius Caesar on a motorcycle. Wadsworth delineates the diverse characters with finesse, amid a pervasive aura of restrained yet cheeky bravado. A little irreverence can go a long way. Here it goes just far enough.

*

The well-matched singers are marvelous--dramatically alert and vocally virtuosic yet never vulgar or self-serving. It isn't always that way when modern musicians go for baroque.

At the dressy opening (which wasn't sold out), Lorraine Hunt wound her lustrous mezzo-soprano around the heroic coloratura lines of the amorous king with splendid bravado. She set the tone for the proceedings with a delicately ardent performance of the only hit tune on the agenda: "Ombra mai fu." She also conveyed a perfect hint of self-mockery in her gently pompous demeanor.

Handel wrote the title role for the superstar castrato Caffarelli, and it might have been interesting to hear a countertenor in the challenge here. Brian Asawa, the magnificent countertenor on duty, however, was cast as Xerxes' brother, Arsamene. He exuded urgent dignity and sang with staggering purity, sweetness, flexibility and dynamic subtlety, as needed. This young man deals in revelations.

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