Photo from Ghosts

Handel's little-heard "Xerxes" (Serse) gets inspired treatment from Boston Baroque and a superb cast.

The season usually begins for us here at with an opening night performance at New England Conservatory’s Jordon Hall by Boston Baroque Orchestra, under the baton of Martin Pearlman. It’s been that way for years now. There’s a mild chill in the air as there usually is in late October; winter is slowly approaching, and fall is about to unfold in a gorgeous panoply of color for those of who live in the northeast.

Tonight’s opening show is George Frederic Handel’s, little-heard or performed “Xerxes” (Serse); the auditorium is packed, as usual.

First performed in 1738 with little success (only five performances at King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, before being retired for almost 250 years) this little-heard Handel opera drama (seria) features a standard musical format common to Handel operas and surprisingly better than most.

“Xerxes,” set around 480 BC, is a somewhat standard, if albeit mildly complicated and at times confusing story, of an already engaged King by the name Xerxes (written for a castrato, usually sung by a mezzo-soprano, performed here by male soprano) who is infatuated with a woman, Romilda, who is in love with the King’s brother, Arsamene who, by the way, happens to be the object of Atalanta’s affection as well. Who is Atalanta? She’s Romilda’s sister. Clearly, there’s trouble brewing in Persia and plenty of room in this tale for some fun, some misunderstanding, a little deception and ultimate and predictable reconciliation.

This drama clocked in at 3 hours and 15 minutes, but can run longer depending upon how it is performed and whether it is edited or not. Here, Boston Baroque’s Martin Pearlman paced the show nicely and the three plus hours flew by in a most enjoyable fashion.

Last night’s performance was inspired, and that may be an understatement. The cast and orchestra was about as perfect as one could hope for, and while the gender bending roles (popular at the time of Handel) added somewhat to the occasional confusion about who was who, the semi-staged production by Paul Peers was imaginative and engaging. It was also, pleasantly humorous, as when Peers involved Maestro Pearlman in some of the fun, by placing him in a scene or two, and making him the object of Amanda Forsythe’s (Atalanta’s) flirtatious attention.

The entire show was filled with little surprises such as this, and the cast chosen was up to the task of delivering them both vocally and physically, in every respect. Face it, Baroque singing is taxing on a singer’s vocal chords and requires a mastery of technique to make it sound natural. I found male soprano Michael Maniaci’s King Xerxes to be the biggest surprise of the evening. Throughout, he maintained a strong, clear vocal delivery and managed the unique range without any noticeable effort or strain.

As for the rest of the cast, Marie Lenormand, singing the male part of Xerxes’ brother Arsamene; Ava Pine, singing the role of Romilda, who is sought after by the King but in love with Arsamene; Leah Wool, singing the role of a foreign princess, Amastre, engaged to Xerxes, but disguised as a soldier; Mark Schnaible, singing the role of Romilda’s father Ariodata, and general in the army of Xerxes; and Michael Scarcelle, singing the role of Arsamene’s servant, Elviro, all performed superbly and contributed enormously to the success of this outstanding production.

Lastly, a hats-off to Amanda Forsythe and “that little red dress” and her wonderful voice and stage presence, and for the way she rendered a flirtatious Atalanta, playing to the audience, and anyone else in this wonderful cast that caught her eye. It’s difficult with a cast as good as this to pick out any one and say, “that was the one that stole the show,” but if I were to venture down that road, she would be “that one” – a denomination that seems to have garnered some national attention these days as well.

As usual, and even better than usual, Martin Pearlman and the Boston Baroque orchestra performed magnificently, and made this very pleasing Handel score come alive and sound rich and full throughout. Well done!

I feel privileged saying I have seen something few others have or likely will see again soon.

Conductor, Martin Pearlman
Stage Direction, Paul Peers


reviewed by Paul Joseph Walkowski

October 24, 2008