Handel’s Xerxes at New York City Opera

On 21 April, I attended a New York City Opera production of George Frideric Handel’s Xerxes. The production is directed by Stephen Wadsworth, who also translated the libretto into a mix of modern and archaic English and adapted the setting to “an imagined England” of Handel’s time.

The conductor was Gary Thor Wedow, directing an orchestra which seemed like a fairly typical Baroque orchestra, comprising mostly string instruments, with woodwinds for contrast and brass adding immediacy to the more festive scenes. The continuo was played by a harpsichord, a cello and a Baroque version of the lute.

The plot of the opera centers around two sets of siblings: King Xerxes (mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly) and his brother Arsamene (countertenor David Walker), and Romilda (soprano Amy Burton) and her sister Atalanta (soprano Lisa Saffer). Another important character is Amastre (mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton), the forsaken fiance of Xerxes. The focus of the opera is the tangled network of infatuations and intrigues among the four siblings.

Handel illustrates this tension and rivalry using two devices: interruption and imitation. Romilda and Atalanta, particularly, interrupt each others’ arias, often with snippets of recitative, and the similarity of their music underscores their desire for the same man. Xerxes and Arsamene, too, often echo each others’ phrases.

A particularly witty moment, possibly an artifact of interpretation rather than written into the score, comes when Xerxes is declaring his intention, in Act I, to win Romilda with “my charms”, a word that is ornamented and drawn out into a trill. The next aria is Arsamene’s, and as he mocks his brother’s plan to win the woman who is secretly his own lover, he repeats, scornfully, almost drawling, this same ornamentation as he derides “your charms”.

The relatively high voices of the main male characters- the only baritone or bass principals are Michael Zegarski in the comic-relief role of Arsamene’s servant Elviro and Jake Gardner in the small and thankless role of Romilda and Atalanta’s father, Ariodate- serve to give the music a light, buoyant quality appropriate to the humor of the libretto.

The vocal qualities of the principals closely correspond with their characters. Clayton, as the foreign princess Amastre, has a dark, rich mezzo-soprano with a deep, full low range which portrays beautifully the nobility of the role and the touch of the exotic that hangs over the character. Conolly, as the imperious and feckless monarch Xerxes, has a higher, lighter mezzo-soprano with great clarity in the upper range, making him seem both more polished and more callow than Amastre.

As Arsamene, the lovesick brother of Xerxes and the most appealing male character in the opera, Walker’s vibrant countertenor voice has a powerful lower extension unusual in countertenors, and is clear and ringing in the higher part of his range. The sopranos, too, are well-suited to their characters.

Burton’s light lyric voice conveys the sweetness of the faithful, innocent Romilda, while Saffer, as the scheming and coquettish Atalanta makes good use of her more penetrating, brighter tones to portray both the sharp edges and the innate brittleness of her character.

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