(Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf, 2 May 2015)
When my friends joined me at the interval of Oper am Rhein’s Xerxes, they found me clutching my prosecco glass with a slightly wild look in my eyes. “I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on!” I whimpered. Since I’d spent three hours watching another production of Xerxes only two days beforehand, this might sound surprising; but Stefan Herheim’s interpretation of Handel’s opera is an entirely different beast from Hampstead Garden Opera’s offering. Anarchic, exuberant and splendidly insane, this was more Carry On than Covent Garden.
That’s ironic because, in a stroke of genius, this story is set on and around the stage of the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in 1738. And Xerxes is no longer the king of Persia but the domineering primo uomo of the theatre, the lead castrato who has women falling at his feet. Used to having whatever and whoever he wants, this arrogant swaggerer is flummoxed when his spirited courtship of the prima donna Romilda fails to bear fruit. But Romilda’s heart is already spoken for, and her lover is none other than Xerxes’ brother Arsamenes. Skulking around the wings and dressing rooms of the theatre, Arsamenes tries to woo his beloved, only to be confounded at every turn by his brother’s all-consuming and lascivious ego. Their love is also overshadowed by the conniving Atalanta, who has ambitions to supplant her sister Romilda not only on the stage but also in Arsamenes’ affections. Their buffoon of a father, who plays the general in the theatre’s current opera, is too dazzled by Xerxes’ glamour to be of any use.
And so the lovers must trust in the kindness of Fate, the ingenuity of Arsamenes’ servant Elviro, and the mysterious stranger who joins the theatre’s chorus line at the start of the opera. This of course is Amastris, a well-born woman to whom the self-absorbed Xerxes has obviously made too many hasty promises. But even Amastris, despite her sense of injury, will find herself hard-pressed to resist the seductive charms of this prince of the stage. And so the characters tumble into a chaotic, sexually-charged romp in which it seems impossible that order will ever be restored.
The opera’s reception has been immensely enthusiastic (this is a revival of the sold-out 2013 production), and I’d expected it to be a straightforward five-star affair. It wasn’t, but that’s because it had the courage to try some creative, crazy things: most resulted in moments of brilliance, but others just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t disappointed though. I’d flown all the way from London solely to see this show and I don’t regret it for a moment. It was colourful and riotous and, even at the moments when I was squirming in my seat and peering through my fingers in disbelief, I had enormous fun.
From the minute the curtain went up, the talented young cast worked flat-out to entertain: the sheer amount of comic talent on that stage was unbelievable, and every scene fizzed with manic energy. Aesthetically it was gorgeous. The ‘onstage’ sets, with their 18th-century-style painted flats, were framed by a gilt-panelled proscenium arch that folded out from the wings. The ‘off-stage’ sets were designed with loving attention to detail and were crammed with cast-off costumes, props and wooden frames: all the backstage clutter of a busy theatre. A revolving stage allowed for quick scene changes, as well as emphasising the themes of farce, concealment and revelation.
And the costumes were unforgettable. In my opinion you simply can’t go wrong with a good frock coat, and here the ‘off-stage’ coats, tricorns, linen shirts and buckled shoes gave way to ‘on-stage’ outfits of such excessive glory that Caffarelli himself would be daunted. Channelling the full absurdity of Baroque theatrical costume, this Xerxes was rocking more gold, feathers, crimson and sequins than I’ve ever seen loaded onto one man before. I was visually enraptured from start to finish.
One of the things I found confusing was the language. I don’t mean the fact that most of it was in German (why not, when we persist in staging it in English?), although I was sorry that my German isn’t good enough to follow the uproarious ad-libs. But I didn’t understand why a handful of arias were kept in Italian. We thought initially that the big hits were going to be in Italian, but though that was true for Ombra mai fù and Crude furie, the equally famous Se bramate d’amar was sung in German. Was it a distinction between ‘on-stage’ and ‘off-stage’ arias? That wasn’t entirely clear either. I’d rather have had it all in German.
Also, even though I know the libretto, I quickly became bewildered because there was simply so much going on. The production describes itself as ‘a Baroque Muppet Show’ (though it’s really not suitable for children), and there was so much happening, with so many sight gags, that I sometimes almost forgot to listen to the music. I felt that some gags were overused, especially the habit of wincing and covering ears when another character is supposed to be singing loudly or angrily.
In a show as silly and exuberantly chaotic as this, the performances have to be good. Fortunately the singing was of a very high standard, even if not all the voices were as powerful as one might have liked in a theatre of that size. The real surprise of the night was Terry Wey as Arsamenes. I’d seen him in Sant’ Alessio but wasn’t sure what to expect from him in an opera seria context. He proved to have a very clear, pleasant voice which came across extremely well: if it lacked a little in roundness and richness (compared to the other countertenor voice onstage), it made up for it in strength. His Romilda was Heidi Elisabeth Meier, who had the strongest voice in the cast, with a beautifully warm and rounded soprano that reached some shimmering high notes.
I appreciated her, but unfortunately Romilda, no matter how lovely her voice, is usually overshadowed for me by her much more amusing sister; and that happened here too. Anke Krabbe turned in a gleefully ambitious performance: this was the most vituperative Atalanta I’ve seen, who is desperate to get her sister out of way by fair means or foul. When she fails to push Romilda into Xerxes’ arms, she changes tack and begins stoking up his fury, helpfully providing various opportunities for him to indulge his wrath (in Se bramate d’amar). Krabbe was actually so wonderfully over-the-top as an actress that I didn’t notice how good her voice was until we were already some way into the opera, with her Un cenno leggiadretto.
The two remaining roles were primarily there for comic colour: Torben Jüngens’s Ariodates didn’t have a huge amount to do except strike bombastic poses and act as a foil to Xerxes; while Hagen Matzeit as Elviro plunged with gusto into the role of earthy sidekick, relishing his ad-libs and sparring with the conductor. He’s the first person I’ve ever seen billed as ‘countertenor and baritone’, but although he switched between the two with facility, I think HGO’s Elviro still has the edge.
And then there’s something else. This says more about me than it does about the production, to be fair, but a lot of the humour was pretty crude and that got wearing after a while. Yes, I know that this makes me sound like a maiden aunt from Tunbridge Wells, but there was a lot of groping, dry-humping and simulated fellatio. (Don’t mention the sheep.) Mind you, I suppose it did keep the focus clearly on the fact that, here, Xerxes’ power is based not on political authority but on being the alpha male within this insular world, and on his sexual domination of the women around him. When Romilda stands up to him, she challenges not only his pride but the entire foundation of his ego. It wasn’t the angle that bothered me so much as the persistent reiteration (really: we get it).
There was just one aspect which I seriously disliked: Atalanta’s playfully flirtatious Un cenno leggiadretto gets out of control and ends with her being carried off by a crowd of theatre stagehands. When we next see her, bruised and limping, she’s obviously been violently assaulted. One of my friends suggested later that this was an attempt to show the darker side of sexual politics, but I thought it was a miscalculation in a production which is played so much for laughs.
Many of the audience members on Saturday night seemed to be well-heeled Düsseldorfers who were simply enjoying their local Oper; but there were a few who’d come for another reason. The lady-killing leading man was played by Valer Sabadus, the heartthrob of the Baroque countertenor scene (most famous for looking beautifully forlorn in a feathered gown as Artaserse’s Semira), and he clearly exercised something of a draw. His overall performance was a masterpiece of ridiculous, effete arrogance which merited our later invention of the new word übercamp. When you see a good-looking six-foot-tall guy sashay down the stage in gold-scaled thigh-high boots with high red heels, a massive plumed helmet, a four-foot wide gilded tonnelet, and a tumbling golden wig that even Louis XIV might have thought a bit much, you don’t easily forget it. Trust me. There’s definitely a bit of Jack Sparrow in this Xerxes’ DNA.
I’ve said before that Sabadus is a very good comedian and physical actor, and he proved that again here. He was especially good at acting while singing some very tricky arias: for example, in Se bramate d’amar he had to menace Romilda, keep Atalanta under control, and wield a sword, pistol, flaming torch and crossbow in quick succession, as well as dealing with a full-on swagger aria delivered at formidable speed. (Oh it was fun.)
But, even as a devotee of the lovely Valer, I felt that perhaps he was better suited to this role physically than vocally. It’s true that he’s one of the best in the world in his voice type, but that makes me particularly demanding; and it’s always different hearing a favourite singer in the flesh rather than on a CD. Hearing him live has confirmed my admiration for his meltingly smooth, vibrant, Sauternes-sweet tone; but he doesn’t have the strongest projection in the world. Nor does he quite have the hard-edged vocal terribilità that gives the best renditions of Crude furie or Se bramate d’amar their firecracker swank. However, his voice is perfectly suited to the gentler, more lyrical arias. His opening Ombra mai fù was tremulously sublime; and his Più che penso alle fiamme was especially memorable. Although, to be honest, that wasn’t so much to do with the singing.
And thus: Amastris. The Finnish Laura Nykänen is billed as a mezzo-soprano, but her range sounded much more like that of a contralto with flashes of mezzo high notes. Unfortunately her lower notes were often drowned by the orchestra (I was only in the eighth row of the stalls and suspect most of the audience would have had difficulty hearing her). However, I did enjoy her Act 2 duet with Xerxes, Gran pena e gelosia! / Lo sa il mio cor piagato, where she not only echoed her errant beloved (at a lower pitch) but was also dressed exactly like him. This mirror image was emphasised as they stood back-to-back and, for a moment, their hands intertwined, hinting that a happy ending might not be out of the question. Her Cagion son io in the final act was also very moving, mainly because it was one of the few occasions on which this Amastris got to show the dignity usually associated with the character.
My abiding memory of her will, however, be during Più che penso alle fiamme, which Xerxes sings as he embarks on the seduction of the theatre’s newest chorus-girl (little guessing who she really is). Of course Xerxes isn’t supposed to know that Amastris is a woman in disguise until the final scene, but I suppose her ‘Persian soldier’ disguise is just another of the theatre’s en travesti costumes. It’s not her sex but her identity that comes as a shock to him.
Hence this aria, which had me watching slack-jawed, half-aghast, half-admiring. Xerxes, in extravagant feather headdress, gold breastplate and gold scaly boots, rips off his tonnelet to reveal skintight crimson velvet breeches and proceeds to unleash the full erotic power of his rippling high notes. While he glories in his own irresistibility, Amastris writhes at the front of the stage in corset and bloomers… (how to put this delicately?) … increasingly overcome by his voice. It felt like a tribute to that scene in Farinelli where the great castrato’s sustained high note has a similar effect on a lady in his audience. One might note sternly that one would expect slightly more resilience from a woman of Amastris’ character, but still… As Xerxes works his magic, stagehands turn round the painted flats to reveal his name spelled out in illuminated letters before, at his direction, rearranging the letters (‘Sex Rex’. Yep, I was so far down in my seat at this point that I was in danger of ending up on the floor. It was one of those moments where I found myself whispering, ‘Oh God, no!’ while simultaneously sobbing with laughter).
But that was just me being horribly English. Overall the show was an absolute riot and the audience loved it. There were seven curtain calls, an almost complete standing ovation and masses of foot-stamping as well as the usual applause, shouting and screaming. To get a flavour of it for yourself, you can watch the official trailer here. Sated by costumes and feathers and the fact of seeing Sabadus in the flesh at last, I had a wonderful time. I’ll be seeing him again in just over a month and can’t wait to compare his swaggering Xerxes with his Marzia in Vinci’s Catone at Versailles in June.* I have a feeling I like his voice better in gentler or female roles, but I’m always open to having my mind changed. I’m also hoping to see him as Nerone in Monteverdi’s Poppea later this year, which should offer an interesting comparison.
Seeing this production so soon after Hampstead Garden Opera’s Xerxes was fascinating. On paper, this should have driven all before it; but although I loved the sets and costumes in Düsseldorf, I found the flavour of the London production closer to my own taste. The energy and verve in Düsseldorf was unparalleled, and there’s no doubt that Sabadus’ Xerxes flounces off with the spoils; but I wasn’t overly keen on this production’s idea of Amastris. Both conceptually and vocally I preferred the London version; and the same goes for Elviro. The superb reading of the final scene in London also casts a long shadow, although I was amused to see that the final chorus in Düsseldorf subtly changes the usual dynamic. Usually Xerxes kneels in contrition before Amastris; here, although he seems to submit, you get the sense that he’s still the victor. He has overcome Amastris’s anger and made a conquest of her just as he has with all the other women around him. Her acceptance of him confirms, rather than challenges, his potency. It was a small thing, but it fitted perfectly with the overall spirit.
Do you know the funny thing? My favourite Xerxes is still a woman. To date, I haven’t heard a single Ombra mai fù which can outshine Paula Rasmussen’s astonishing rendition. So, the pressure is on for the third Xerxes of the year, when Longborough Opera will be taking over the Britten Theatre, and Jake Arditti will be stepping into Sabadus’ gleaming gold-scaled shoes.