Xerxes | Victorian OperaPhotos - Jeff Busby

Victorian Opera’s
production of Xerxes delivers a hefty serving of professional Baroque opera to Melbourne audiences. This collaboration with New Zealand Opera brings together Australian and New Zealand talent and resources: attractive Australian singers; Australian director Roger Hodgman and lighting designer Matt Scott; Melbourne’s best early music musicians under the umbrella of Accademia Arcadia, conducted by Baroque specialists John O’Donnell and Jacqueline Ogeil; and New Zealand set designer John Verryt and fashion designer Trelise Cooper. Whilst this collaboration enables the costly production of Baroque opera, it is questionable whether this art form lends itself to such commercial approach or whether this particular attempt was a full success.

The exquisite acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall carried the luscious sounds of the period instruments and beautiful voices with meticulous clarity. The acoustics of the hall are also merciless and expose even the slightest sound imperfection. In this performance Roxane Hislop’s resonance did not cut through the orchestral sound and there was occasional lack of balance between orchestra and singers. Vivacious tempos, nuance of phrasing and sensitive articulation marked the sinfonias played by Accademia Arcadia. Dynamic recitatives and dramatic ariosos flowed into virtuosic arias, dissonant appoggiaturas or exuberant cadenzas, and both surprised and satisfied everyone in the almost full hall.

Tiffany Speight (Romilda), Tobias Cole (Xerxes) and Dimity Shepherd (Arsamene) brought the house down on a couple of occasions. The beautiful Tiffany Speight carried Cooper’s stunning gowns with style and grace and displayed a warm and rich timbre. She used her cape and hands well and portrayed the strength of faithfulness with dignity. Her facial expression, movement, tone, colour, phrasing and ornamentation were equally successful in depicting anger, inner power, jealousy and sorrow. Tobias Cole has a strong stage presence. He is handsome and is endowed with a beautifully unusual voice. Cole took his character on a journey from royal poise to the ridiculous very successfully; however, his acting could be greatly enhanced by detailed gestural emphasis and better use of props and costume features, such as the cape. His musical interpretation and vocal virtuosity allowed the audience to come close to the experience of what it must have been like to witness the performance of a lead singer in Handel’s times. Dimity Shepherd delivered an extremely strong trouser role. Her histrionics, rich mezzo tone and musical reflection achieved great sincerity of sentiment. Gary Rowley revealed the entertaining buffo character of Elviro in its entire comical splendour. He delivered it with a sonorous baritone voice and a lovely falsetto, complemented by excellent acting skills. Anna Margolis made her Atalanta frivolous, calculating and stupid, and less likable each time she sang. Better Italian diction (stronger consonants) and better costumes would have contributed to an even better character portrayal. Steven Gallop displayed solid vocals and acting in the characterisation of his Ariodate.

There must be something more than court intrigue in the operatic plot of Xerxes that attracted three celebrated composers to set it to music: Fr. Cavalli (1645), G. B. Bononcini (1694) and G. Fr. Handel (1738). Was it the challenge of having to create a musical setting for a plot that fuses comic and heroic characters and elements? In this very early opera semi-seria Handel uses an array of formats and techniques to entertain but, more importantly, to entice the viewers’ intellectual capacity into perceiving their every-day life and behaviour from a distance. The major theme in Xerxes focuses on how vice such as greed, misuse of power, envy and jealousy can be overcome by constancy and courage. The weaknesses of King Xerxes are exposed and neutralised by two women: Romilda with whom he falls in love but who is in love with his brother; and Amastre, the Princess of Tragor and his abandoned betrothed. The contrast of opposites, including heroic and comic elements, develops the theme. Handel masterfully invites the spectators to empathise with each character whilst laughing at their own flaws.

The drama of this interpretation of Xerxes suffers from superficiality. Contemporary artists must take into consideration the rhetorical principles and allegorical symbolism assigned to characters, musical keys and figuration, which encode specific meaning into the dramaturgy and musical settings of early operas. If nothing else, the Baroque pomp and stylisation of rationalised emotional states could be used to delineate and picture the traits of the human condition. Unfortunately, such dramatic analysis has not found its way into the language of this production. The minimalistic set of John Verryt alludes to Persia, where the story is set, with a courtyard of an oriental palace. Moving marble-looking blocks allow for efficient scene shifts. The predominant white and pale blue colours of the set lend themselves easily to striking lighting effects. Despite these clever solutions, the set remains an unpretentious background to Trelise Cooper’s costumes. Her designs are dramatically disjunct and unbalanced. The two sisters Romilda and Atalanta have totally different attire, as if they do not live in the same court. Romilda has two mesmerizing outfits. Both consist of elaborate gowns and capes. The first costume is a subtle ensemble of colours, dominated by a fuchsia pink cape, while the second is entirely ivory. Xerxes has been given a lovely purple coat with a beaded peacock on the back and, in the second act, brings out an intricate crown and cape, mockingly referencing the English royal canon. Such a display of shape, texture, colour and ornament are rarely seen in contemporary operatic costumes. They make the eye feast for the entire 2 hours and 50 minutes of the performance’s duration. Disappointingly, Atalanta has only one costume which is in a totally different style and, in comparison to Romilda’s costumes, looks as if it was purchased from Garfunkle. Its purple undertones totally misrepresent the character. The rest of the costumes borrow from eighteenth-century dress code, while the chorus of four people wear an unusual combination of Asian folk and military garb. It seems that inspiration ceased with the completion of the complex costumes of Romilda and Xerxes.

Victorian Opera presents
by George Frideric Handel

A Co-Production with The NBR New Zealand Opera

Director Roger Hodgman

Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
Dates: 13, 15 August at 7.30pm, 18 August at 6.30pm, 20 August at 7.30pm
Tickets: $30 - $138 (plus b/f)
Bookings: www.melbournerecital.com.au or 9699 3333

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

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