Photo from Ghosts

Boston Baroque opens with Handel's Xerxes
The Boston Globe

Boston Baroque has taken to opening its recent seasons with semi-staged opera performances. And so it was last night in Jordan Hall, when Martin Pearlman and his ensemble delivered a strong, richly detailed performance of "Xerxes," Handel's tale of lovelorn royals complexly entangled in romantic yearnings beyond their control.

"Xerxes," or "Serse" in the Italian of Handel's libretto, did not do well in the composer's day but it has become one of his most frequently performed operas. From the outset of Act I, Handel wastes no time in delivering arresting music by way of the celebrated aria "Ombra mai fu," probably the most ravishing three minutes in the entire opera, and every note addressed to a humble tree. It is sung by Xerxes, the Persian king, who seems to find a constancy and reciprocity of care in nature that eludes him in life.

And poor king. He is betrothed to Amastre but has fallen in love with Romilda, who prefers to love the king's brother Arsamene, who is himself in the sights of Atalanta. Conflicting passions stalemate all five of them, and just when either scheming or benevolence seems like it might break the impasse, the ungovernable passions reassert their reign. Their push and pull within each character finds brilliant expression in Handel's music, and while "Xerxes" may technically be called a comedy, the more pervasive tone is one of tender melancholy.

Director Paul Peers has, innocuously for the most part, updated the action from ancient Persia to a more contemporary moment, with props taken from the orchestra. Batons functioned as swords and Peers got the audience laughing by having two characters sing to each other via cellphones - until they lose reception. The impressive male soprano Michael Maniaci sang Xerxes with a confident presence and a strong, clear, and well-controlled voice, though one wished at times for more coloristic nuance. Ava Pine was particularly compelling as Romilda, singing with rich expressivity and tonal warmth. Marie Lenormand was a capable Arsamene, Leah Wool made an ardent Amastre, and the ever-nimble Amanda Forsythe was a very saucy Atalanta. Mark Schnaible deployed a highly resonant bass-baritone as the prince Ariodate, and Michael Scarcelle provided fluidly sung comic relief as the servant Elviro.

Though sometimes lacking in dramatic flair, the orchestra under Pearlman's direction was never less than crystal clear, rhythmically steady, and precisely balanced. And with the singers keeping such close company, the conductor was on occasion dragged into the romantic crossfire - often to the audience's delight.


reviewed by Jeremy Eichler

October 25, 2008