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If music be the food of love, play on." Such seemed to be the central idea behind Boston Baroque's entertaining semi-staged production of Handel's "Xerxes" (seen Oct. 25). What at first glance would appear to be a limitation staging an opera with a twenty-five-member Baroque orchestra occupying the lion's share of center stage at all times became, in the hands of stage director Paul Peers, a clever conceit. All the world was not just a stage, it was an opera stage; and Handel's comedy of overlapping romantic triangles became a telling of the tale of a jealous and fickle king, as well as a meditation on the art form itself. The "set" consisted of a piano bench or two and a raised walkway with five music stands set up oratorio-style behind the orchestra. As though restlessly compelled to break free from this traditional performing space, the singers moved about the stage, interacting freely with the orchestra and with each other. They would pop in and out of one of the five stage doors, facilitating quick changes of scene while also suggesting the amorous flurry of French farce. Or, in a charming bit of business, when needing to hide quickly from the vengeful "Xerxes", a vocalist would grab an instrument and pretend to be part of the orchestra (or even, in a pinch, the conductor).

Martin Pearlman led the remarkable Boston Baroque orchestra and chorus in a performance filled with energy and sparkling wit, perfectly tuned in to Handel's shifting moods and capturing both the freewheeling charm and the pathos of the score.

One could hardly ask for a better cast. They were young, fresh-voiced, and appealing and had vocal technique to burn. Male soprano Michael Maniaci, possessing a gorgeous, once-in-a-lifetime voice, brought passion and fiery commitment to the eponymous role. His "Xerxes" was more petulant and childish than regal, but his dark moods and tantrums were no less dangerous for that. As Arsamene, his brother and romantic rival, mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand captured the youthful ardor and quicksilver moods of an adolescent in love. Soprano Ava Pine glowed as Romilda, the object of both of their affections, and was particularly beguiling when she suddenly seemed to notice that there was an orchestra onstage, grabbing a music stand and taking the opportunity to toss off a da capo aria, just because she could. In the role of Elviro, Arsamene's servant, bass Michael Scarcelle possessed an appealing, charismatic stage presence and a spot-on sense of comic timing reminiscent of a young Cary Grant.

Where to begin in praising Amanda Forsythe's performance as Romilda's conniving sister, Atalanta? Standing out even in such gifted company, she was superb. The kind of artist one always hopes to discover, she displayed phenomenal technique, crystalline tone and a dynamite stage presence. Her transformation from the quiet sister in the shadows into a Handelian vixen in a slinky red dress will remain one of the highlights of the season. Before "Xerxes", Handel composed Atalanta, an opera centered on a character of the same name please, would someone consider giving Forsythe her own show?

 

reviewed by Kalen Ratzlaff

October 25, 2008