We had an unusual treat last Friday. We attended a performance of Handel's Xerxes, one of the forty-some operas he composed and put on for the delight of 18th century London. Handel's operas are unusual now because, well, the male leads tend to be sopranos. Georg Friedrich was nothing if not fashionable, and the height of opera fashion in his day was the castrato. It's very hard to find castrati these days, so Handel operas have a lot of women singing male roles, although you do get the occasional counter tenor.
The singing - all the music - was wonderful; never having attended a live opera at the opera house, I was fascinated to discover that they do not amplify the singers. No lapel mikes here. This means you actually have to listen to them; and because the War Memorial Opera House has fabulous acoustics, you can hear them, at least where I was in the orchestra section. But you will not be deafened by an amplified orchestra, as we were when we saw Wicked. If you're interested in the details, including the names of the cast and more about the plot than you could ever need to know, it's all on the S.F. Opera's web page for Xerxes. In fact, you might still be able to get seats - as I write this there are 2 performances left.
Most of Handel's operas were tragedies, opera seria, but Xerxes is a comedy. (This may be why the premiere bombed in April 1738; the audience was Not Amused.) Xerxes the king (sung by a soprano, originally by a castrato) and his brother Arsamenes (sung by a counter tenor, but originally sung by a woman soprano!) are both in love with Romilda, the daughter of a general. Romilda (sung by a woman, phew!) is in love with Arsamenes. Romilda's sister Atalanta (another soprano) is also in love with Arsamenes and is willing to lie, cheat and steal to get him, and she does. There are a lot of sopranos in this cast. In fact, the only non-sopranos are Elviro, Arsamenes' servant (a bass), Ariodates, Romilda's father (a bass), and Amastris, Xerxes' official fiancee (a contralto). Amastris has come, disguised as a soldier in Xerxes' army, because she can't bear to be separated from him, only to discover that he plans to jilt her for Romilda. Amastris as sung last Friday is the most masculine presence on the stage, and sings several fabulous arias, swearing revenge.
If this sounds like something you might have seen on Days of Our Lives, only with royal courts and good singing, you're right. It's actually worse - I don't think anyone in Days of Our Lives ever declared their love for a tree, but when the opera opens that's what Xerxes is doing. And he's doing it in an aria that I've known for years without ever realizing what it really was: it's called Ombra mai fu, but if you know Handel's music at all, you know it as Handel's Largo. I'll never hear the Largo quite the same way again. In the next scene, Romilda entertains the court with a charming aria explaining how silly it is that Xerxes is in love with a tree, Xerxes hears her and is smitten, and off we go. It's bad luck to make fun of the king.
In the third act, Arsamenes, who thinks Romilda has betrayed him,
and Romilda, who thinks he has betrayed her, have a major lover's spat
which, of course, is a soprano duet. Sorry, in a soprano argument, the
female has the bigger voice - the counter tenor is all in his head
I had a wonderful time. I've always loved Handel's music, and here was a whole evening of it, brilliantly performed, with gorgeous costumes and hilarious staging. The chorus was gray - they wore grayface makeup, gray clothing, gray caps. They moved around in a stately way, being the crowd, and singing a couple of short pieces. A small group of stagehands was made up as servants, in whiteface, bald, wearing black clothing with white collars, stockings, and shoes, and walking in perfect step to rearrange lawn chairs and other furniture, move giant Assyrian statues in and out, and so forth. Nobody but the soloists ever displayed any expression of any sort, they were like statues. I'm sorry, but Arsamenes' costumes too often looked like pajamas, maybe it's the way he wore them. The one with the gorgeous 18th century male costumes is Amastris - I'd love to have that hat! And that voice, and that lung power!